Welcome back to Nerdette Book Club! It’s just like a regular book club only you never have to leave your house! This month’s pick is White Ivy by Susie Yang. It’s a thrilling debut about a young Chinese American woman harboring a dark obsession for her childhood crush.
Listen to our spoiler-free discussion of the book with Susie, and be sure to come back later this month for a spoiler-filled conversation with our distinguished panel. PLUS, don’t forget: we want to hear from you too! Record your thoughts about the collection and send an audio file to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the origins of White Ivy
Susie Yang: I love the story of a really ruthless social climber. And it almost wasn’t a conscious choice to say, “Let me re-frame [that genre] around a Chinese American girl.” … Actually, this book came to me because of the first sentence, which was “Ivy Lin is a thief, but you would never know it to look at her.” And I just had this image of this very innocent-looking Chinese American girl shoplifting. And I thought, “Oh, that’s so interesting,” because I found the paradox between her being taken by society as a docile, obedient person and then her inner scheming — I found that type of contrast, really interesting.
On the importance of class in the book
SY: I thought a lot more about the class differences than the racial differences [when writing this book]. For Ivy, she goes to this boarding school where everybody else is very wealthy, and she’s there on a scholarship. So she wants the nice things. She wants the beautiful things that money can buy. But I think she really wants the legitimacy of belonging to that class. I did want to make that statement that class isn’t just about money. It’s really about feeling a sense of belonging and security, a feeling of legitimacy, which Ivy is striving for.
On unlikeable female protagonists
SY: I really like Machiavellian characters. I just feel like all of us have — whether we act on them or not — we have darker impulses. And I feel like characters who’re written to be very self righteous, I find that really irritating. [I like to see] how characters grapple with their baser impulses. I think that constant struggle, that man-versus-self thing, is really interesting, you know? Ivy’s morals continuously degrade along this story, which I found to be a really interesting arc. I think people probably identify with that. And they also find it more entertaining. If somebody is really motivated to do something, even if it’s something terrible, you’re still invested in the outcome. Do they get what they want? How far are they willing to go? I think that’s really entertaining, and it makes us reflect on ourselves. I feel like if every character was very reasonable, literature would be quite dull.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.