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White Ivy by Susie Yang

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

white-ivy-susie-yang-book-review-jeanne-blasbergWhite Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy is a suspenseful novel with a protagonist who is intentionally portrayed as an anti-heroine. It begins “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.” In classic anti-heroism style, Ivy has few redeeming qualities at the beginning of the novel, and although she experiences growth and revelation, she never comes around morally. She steals, lies, prostitutes herself, and even treats her own body like a garbage dump. So the question is: How do we feel about detestable protagonists? Such a structure certainly demands tolerance from a reader and some appreciation for its departure from what we’ve been raised on—characters who transition over the course of a novel and in so doing deliver a universal message of hope or possibility.

Can we enjoy novels with protagonists we don’t like? There are plenty of male anti-heroes, the Humbert Humberts of the world, detestable protagonists we end up rooting for despite their faults. The fact is the reading public is especially hard on female characters who do not adhere to stereotype, who are not kind and thoughtful and domestic, or do not at least come around to these attributes by novel’s end. Because of this, one can hold White Ivy up as a work of art that challenges societal bias. It receives five stars on that measure, if only three stars on the whole.

On the other hand, the jacket copy describes the novel as one that offers “sharp insights into the immigrant experience.” That statement is pure marketing and potentially exploitive. Ivy Lin is a very complex individual as are the members of her family. One would hate to think that Susie Yang wrote Ivy Lin’s character or the Lin family in general to be representative of Chinese Americans. If that is the case, it paints an extremely negative and troubling picture.

In addition, for a story primarily set in Boston and fictitious towns surrounding the city, it fails to offer authentic details. In fact, there are several erroneous details, creating lapses in credibility that trip up the reader and diminish her eagerness to go along with the narrator on a journey that already demands she withhold judgement on Ivy Lin’s character. For example, bad winter weather usually comes in from the west, not the north, and not from the Atlantic; when leaving Boston one does not drive through upstate New York in order to get to New Jersey; there is no block on Beacon Hill where there are rows of identical front doors; a state senator works in Boston and not in Washington. While Yang writes well and employs fine use of metaphor, occasional poor grammar and word choice threaten to startle the reader from the fictive dream she is working hard to establish.

Ivy Lin grows up in a poor family but attends a private school in Massachusetts on account of her father working there. It is at this school that she develops a crush on Gideon Speyer. After lying to her parents in order to attend a slumber party at his home, Ivy is sent to stay with relatives in China for the summer, and the family moves to New Jersey while she is out of the country. Lin goes on to attend an unnamed women’s college outside of Boston where she reconnects with the Speyer family and drama ensues.

The early chapters of this novel are enjoyable. The relationship Ivy shares with her grandmother is great, as are her travels and the relationships she makes that summer as a young teen in China. The choices she makes to fit in and survive in her family seem plausible. If this is the description of the immigrant experience Yang is going for, then it’s laudable. The second half of the novel, however, is where plot twists enter around the superficially and simplistically wrought Speyer family and the story succumbs to a downward spiral of baseness.

White Ivy is entertaining insofar as it is extremely original. The conclusion left this reader without a sense of hope, depressed over an ending that rewards self-centered opportunism. The final scene is one where Ivy faces off against Gideon’s sister, Silvia Speyer, in a contest of innuendo between two equally loathsome human beings. However, maybe that was the point. The lesson for the reader might be in the irony—that if you are looking for a real hero, the most self-aware and honest character in this novel is the one you would have least expected.

 

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Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg is an award-winning author and essayist. Her most recent book is The Nine, winner of multiple awards including a Foreword Indies Gold Award in Thriller & Suspense. She is the founder of the Westerly Writer’s Workshop as well as a board member of the Boston Book Festival.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

brown-girl-dreaming-jacqueline-woodson-book-review-jeanne-blasbergBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

To write a memoir in prose, to distill each experience into just the right words, to leave enough white space on the page for a reader to jump in and participate with the language, that is the work of a master. Reader, you already know you are in masterful hands with Jacqueline Woodson. I listened to an interview with Woodson on the Write-Minded podcast with Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner where she admitted that it was possible to consume Brown Girl Dreaming in one sitting, but that it pained her to hear when readers did that. She really wished we wouldn’t. Indeed, I enjoyed this memoir slowly in bites I could savor. Keeping it on hand for quiet moments when I could sit and think and enjoy the cadence of the verse. It is a book you will want to keep close at hand, a reminder that poignant imagery transports and conveys meaning better than pages and pages and pages. This is a beauty of a book!

More reviews from Jeannie.

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

I loved this book’s ambition. Any modern retelling of a biblical character has me hooked as well. The braiding of the three point-of-view characters’ stories was masterful and the reveal about two-thirds of the way through around how their lives were even more tightly wound was terrific.

Having just finished reading Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser, I am struck by how Esther and Vashti’s stories might have been interpreted entirely differently if a woman had first written them. Here was my chance to find out! Just as the Lionel and Ian in the novel malign and misconstrue Vee’s intentions, so has been the masculine lens on a woman’s life.

This book grapples with such important issues around motherhood, femininity, misogyny, but with a structure that is incredibly innovative and entertaining.

 

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Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser

cassandra-speaks-book-review-jeanne-blasbergCassandra Speaks is Lesser’s musing on how it might be different if women told our civilization’s earliest stories, how it might be different if our society valued attributes found predominantly in women as opposed to those found predominantly in men. Layers and layers of patriarchy are hard to strip off, however, as both women and men have perpetuated throughout the ages. It is our worldview.

As a writer of women’s fiction, I took Lesser’s admonitions to heart – that it is possible for us, for me, to help usher in a change. It is important to create characters that succeed because they are collaborators, for example, intuitive, loving. The book described how a younger generation is living the change, how the expectations of fatherhood has changed.

Much of this book affirms what we already know, but serves as a good kick in the pants!

 

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Literary Community: The Silver Lining of the COVID Era

I finally had a hair appointment and while the grey is back under control and the cut is cute and bouncy, the best thing about the appointment was somewhat unexpected. The act of reclining back toward the sink to have my hair shampooed brought on a state of near ecstasy I hadn’t anticipated. It wasn’t just the perfect water temperature; it was the caress and massage of another’s hands on my scalp.  I have always enjoyed that part of the process, but it’s possible at a pace of every 6-8 weeks over the past twenty years, I had begun to take it for granted.  Gloved hands working the soap through my hair made it perfectly safe for both of us (of course that was first thing that went through my mind before I could relax into the experience.)  But then it was all about another’s fingers spreading and applying pressure to a head that had been reeling, fretting, aching.

To be touched. It is a primal human need. I’ve gone six months turtling into my shell, shrinking back when others come too close, my circumference of acceptable personal space swollen and awkward.  That shampoo was a Godsend. I know what I have been missing and what might have me come alive again.

Since that afternoon, I’ve been wondering what will be the occasion and who will be the recipient of my first ungloved handshake once this has subsided, in the new-normal?  It probably won’t be planned or foreseen, but I hope it elicits the same awareness I had while my hair was being shampooed and rinsed.  As opposed to never knowing when an interaction with somebody or something is going to be your last, I look forward to being aware of that first.  I vow to be grateful for human touch and the generosity and connection it exhibits. May I never take that for granted again.

But even as my hair grew unruly and turned its natural color while at home, some things became more accessible in the virtual world, including literary events. Of course, they are always more fun in person, but never before did I have the option to attend one every day in locales near and far.  Like a kid in a candy store, I binged on them in April and May, doing my best to support authors who had the shit luck of launching a book during the pandemic. I found new favorites and ordered books from Bookshop.org to keep indies in business.

literary-community-during-covid-family-watching-computer copyThe summer months brought more events, and I was able to drag family members along in ways I never was able to before.  While working on a jigsaw puzzle, my son and I tuned into a Sarah Broom and Thelma Golden in discussion about THE YELLOW HOUSE through the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival.  Our local bookstore featured Colson Whitehead’s discussion of THE NICKLE BOYS and THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and while my adult children went on about their business preparing dinner in the kitchen, they stopped and listened—and then actually read all of Whitehead’s work.  I binged on Europa Edition’s worldwide panel discussions of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, the Boston Book Festival’s event with Ella Berthoud, who streamed in from the UK to prescribe her NOVEL CURE

I’ve also taken many classes and attended writing conferences, thanks to Grub Street, The Southampton Writers Conference, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, and Mary Carroll Moore. What’s more, I taught my first fiction workshop, an 8 week generative class on Monday evenings through the Westerly Writers Workshop and the Ocean Community YMCA. What used to be an infrequent respite from a busy life has become a weekly pleasure, filling in the distance between us and the encircling arms of friends.

jeanne-blaserbg-at-computer-for-literary-eventAnd I am not alone. If you are a book lover or lifelong learner, I’m sure you have had similar experiences.  If you want a few tips – please know it is Book Festival Season. I am biased toward the Boston Book Festival, but the Brooklyn Book Festival and the National Book Festival are also coming up with events open to all online.

We are at a strange moment in time, with technology making our world smaller and more accessible even as world events balloon the distance between us. But don’t take it for granted. Indulge now because the pendulum is sure to swing once more.  

Even as I look forward to that first handshake, the next shampoo, the opportunity to hug friends outside my bubble close once more, this communion with fellow book lovers is a different kind of needed touch. For now, may I take as much pleasure in the brief caress of each literary event as I did in that simple moment at the salon. 

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Daddy by Emma Cline

daddy-emma-cline-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewDaddy by Emma Cline

Daddy is a wonderful collection of stories that struck a chord with me for its insights into dark situations. The sense of knowing and revelatory observation kept me reading these sometimes everyday, sometimes twisted stories. Was excited to read because I was a big fan of The Girls. Cline writes about a breadth of life experience that is quite astounding, and her details are fabulous – she gets to the heart of emotion, to the heart of a power struggle and a desire to be understood. I highly recommend.

 

Check out what else Jeannie is reading.

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The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

yellow-house-sarah-broom-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewThe Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

What I loved most about this memoir was Sarah’s voice, and her honest, unsure assemblage of memory, research, and interview that combines to paint a history of a house, a family, and a city. I loved being privy to Sarah’s confusion and frustration along the way, her hesitancy telling the story from the “baby’s point of view.” She is the youngest of 12 children and so much of the family history happened before she was born and that urgent sense of needing to play catch up and understand comes through in the work. A fantastic read if you love memoir, also if you want an insider’s tour of New Orleans, both pre and post Katrina.

 

Read more from Jeanne.

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A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

colin-jost-very-punchable-face-book-review-jeanne-blasbergA Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

I became a fan of Colin Jost after he delivered the commencement speech at my daughter’s high school graduation – more of a stand up comedy routine than a speech, but he did end up delivering a great message in the end. So I pre-ordered his book as soon as I learned of its pending release and it was like one of those gifts that hits at the perfect moment. Written with humility to the point of self-deprecation, A Very Punchable Face will have you laughing out loud, smiling, and as was the case with the chapter about why he loves his mom, maybe shedding a tear. I suggested my daughter listen to the audio on a recent long drive and it was the perfect travel companion – entertaining yet inspirational. Colin’s honesty and commitment to hard work shines through every page. He is a great guy and Scarlet Johansen is one lucky gal. I highly recommend for any age, to inspire, to make you laugh, to get through a dark time. Really great.

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The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

days-of-abandonment-elena-ferrante-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewThe Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Wow, The Days of Abandonment was well written with important things to say, but still pretty tough for me to read. As Olga navigates the dark days and weeks after her husband’s departure, the reader cringes and worries for the helpless beings in her care. It really triggered something painful in me as a wife and a mother (and maybe also from my helpless inner child??) I stressed our vulnerability to our spouses, but also how hard it is for mothers to break down when so much depends on us.

 

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

vanishing-half-brit-bennett-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewThe Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I was aware of the general premise of The Vanishing Half before I began it, however the structure was unexpected and delightful. I really loved the multi generational component of this novel, the idea that decisions travel forward and backwards, and that lying is a form of loving. Bennett writes with beautiful language and imagery, especially in the scenes set in Louisiana.

 

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