Tech entrepreneur turned novelist Susie Yang’s debut is a dark spin on the marriage plot: in it, the Chinese-American social climber Ivy Lin sets out to marry the patrician golden boy she fancied as a teen. “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her,” is the snappy first sentence.
Ivy, the child of poor Chinese immigrants in Massachusetts, learns resourcefulness (minor thefts) from her grandmother. She attends the local rich kids’ school when her dad starts working there, but can never shake off her outsider status. She pines after the cultured, well-bred Gideon Speyer, but falls in with the sketchy Roux Roman, who likes her but she thinks he is “poor trash”. The plot then skips to when Ivy is in her mid-twenties, and a teacher at a fancy school in Boston. Gideon crops back up, and soon they’re engaged – but the reappearance of Roux threatens to mess it all up.
The thieving, sadly, is a bit of a red herring. Lots of plot points are, the book full of tantalising set-ups never fleshed out. Are the Speyers as wealthy as they seem? How did Roux make his money? Does Gideon have a secret? (Yes, but it gets about a page of breathing space.) Instead, White Ivy is a character study of a tortured wannabe whose “personality had formed into crooked shapes around the hard structure of her Chinese upbringing”. That the woman inveigling her way into the American upper classes is Chinese is intriguing – though once again it’s barely explored.
Still, it’s sordid and fun, with plenty of descriptions of rich-person interiors and meals and clothes. Yang’s reflections on the psychology of wealth are interesting; such as the quality of “natural ownership” Ivy identifies in the way Gideon speaks, or, repulsed by new money, her vow to “always carry my wealth on my body, not in my wallet”. The book crescendos into a satisfyingly soapy ending; but, ultimately, this long-winded novel leaves you wanting more.
White Ivy by Susie Yang is published by Wildfire at £18.99. To order your copy, visit Telegraph Books or call 0844 871 1514