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Review: You won’t find a romance darker than Susie Yang’s ‘White Ivy’

Susie Yang, author of "White Ivy."
(Onur Pinar Photography)

On the Shelf

White Ivy

By Susie Yang
Simon & Schuster: 368 pages, $26

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Romances invariably end with happily ever after, but only after earning those endings by almost tipping over into tragedy. Sometimes such near-misses are carefully calibrated, as in “Sense and Sensibility,” with its final felicitous swap of marriageable brothers. Sometimes the misery overtakes the romance, much to the book’s detriment: any halfway sentient reader of “Fifty Shades of Grey” will have a hard time believing shallow Ana and controlling Christian are headed for anything good (or any sequel worth reading). In either case, the genre cannot have joy without the shadow of heartbreak and despair.

Susie Yang’s wonderful debut novel, “White Ivy,” is literary fiction rather than category romance, but the author uses romance the way Jonathan Lethem or Ling Ma use science fiction and horror: as inspiration, as a theme ripe for variation, as a counterpart to argue with and as a lover to court. “White Ivy’s” final, bleak wedding isn’t so much a parody of romance as an embrace of its sublimated, hidden darknesses — dappled, as Yang writes, “like a sunlit path lined with flowers and green things.”

Ivy, our heroine, is raised in China by her loving grandmother, Meifeng, until she is 5 — at which point she is put on a plane to America to join her emotionally remote, occasionally abusive parents and her younger brother Austin. Desperate to belong in the U.S., she develops a passionate middle-school crush on Gideon, a budding member of the New England gentry. But she’s also interested in her lower-class friend Roux—the earthy team Jacob to Gideon’s perfect team Edward.

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Like many a romance protagonist, Ivy is a voracious reader, steeped in narratives of beautiful heroines and “bleak circumstances.” And in many ways, the novel follows the classic arc of those narratives. Ivy comes from a family that is struggling financially; Gideon’s father is an influential politician from old money. The couple meet cute as young kids—and then again a decade later. (Roux comes around again when Ivy is an adult too.) Their relationship is shadowed by uncertainty over Gideon’s affections, leading eventually to a declaration of love.

Bea Koch, co-owner of the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, tells the untold women’s stories in “Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency.”

Because this is a modern romance, career ambitions parallel traditional passions; Ivy decides she wants to become a lawyer. Then there’s a crisis — what scholar Pamela Regis calls a “point of ritual death” — “when the union between heroine and hero, the hoped-for resolution, seems absolutely impossible.” When that is finally overcome, we generally proceed to that HEA: happily ever after.

The genius of “White Ivy” is that each plot point of the romance is fulfilled but also undercut by a traumatic pratfall, described in language as bright and scarring as a wound. Ivy’s first sort-of-date with Gideon at a middle-school movie party is interrupted by her family, in a searingly humiliating scene that reads like Kafka writing comedy of manners: “her mother’s nostrils flared out like door flaps each time she inhaled.” Ivy’s career pursuit is desultory and ill-advised. As Roux accurately says, she is “easily intimidated” and “swayed completely by outward appearances” — a fatal mismatch for a legal career. And the “point of ritual death” — well, let’s just say there’s nothing figurative about it here. It’s a descent from which Ivy never really emerges.

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Book jacket for "White Ivy" By Susie Yang.
(Simon & Schuster)

Even before the crisis, though, Ivy’s relationship with Gideon is oddly hollow. Yang (deliberately) never provides a glimpse into her romantic hero’s thoughts, and he comes across as more mannequin than man: Beautiful, pure and largely, to Ivy, unknowable. In most romance novels, the reader figures out that the protagonists are crazy about each other before the protagonists themselves, because readers are privy to conversations with friends or private thoughts, or just because they know the tropes. But Yang flips those expectations around. Gideon proposes out of nowhere, a sudden fungal flowering of love so unexpected, it’s ominous.

“The only thing greater than her desire for Gideon was her vanity,” Yang writes of Ivy. And, as Yang shows, loving Gideon for Ivy is really about loving an idealized vision of herself as affluent, comfortable, perfect. One of her few moments of true happiness in the novel comes when she’s dancing on a raised platform at a party; she scans the room, “evaluating those evaluating her, in mutual satisfactory evaluation.” Ivy wants to be those watching her approvingly — her own audience for her own rom-com, cheering the fulfillment of her own HEA.

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The novel doesn’t exactly say that kind of happiness is impossible. Ivy’s roommate lives out a popular billionaire romance narrative — a clever twist wherein the sidekick lands the real catch. Ivy’s own parents also turn out to have a happier marriage than she’d thought— and more financial success too. Gideon represents a misconstrued new identity, concocted to supplant an equally misconstrued old identity. She loves his perfect surface, and the perfect surface is, alas, what she gets.

The inability to see what’s in front of her face is partly just who Ivy is. But it’s also the world she lives in. Romance tends to be about love overcoming the forces of bigotry and patriarchy and class: Julia Roberts turns Richard Gere into a kinder, gentler businessman in “Pretty Woman”; in Alice Wu’s groundbreaking 2004 Asian American rom-com, “Saving Face,” love overcomes homophobia. But in “White Ivy,” prejudice, misogyny and class hatred (and homophobia too) are wilier opponents. They don’t just stand in the way of love; they undermine it from within by corrupting the heroine’s understanding of what true love is in the first place.

“White Ivy” is in many ways a cold, clinical book. Yang puts Ivy on the operating table and exposes her weaknesses, her foolishness, her self-loathing and her broken emotional and moral compass. But just as romance has to understand the potential for sadness, the resolutely anti-romantic Yang knows you need a dollop of romance if you want to break your readers’ hearts.

Kwan has two TV shows in the works, a new novel, “Sex and Vanity,” an L.A. residence and a plan to “showcase diversity in a variety of ways.”

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Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of “The Consequences of Feminism: Women Film Directors.”


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