I have taken many fiction writing courses, and I’ve also had my writing reviewed by readers, critics, and my agent. One thing I've found to be consistent is, no one seems to like it when a main character does something unlikeable. Just this weekend, I took a fiction writing workshop where the presenter said the main character needs to be sympathetic or compelling, and he or she needs to change over the course of the novel. For most readers, a compelling main character doesn’t seem to be enough; they want her to be likable too. That’s why I find it so surprising that Susie Yang's novel White Ivy is as big a hit as it is. Ivy, the main character, is neither sympathetic nor likable, though she is compelling. And she changes very little over the course of the novel.
Ivy is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and from an early age, she learns to be a thief and a liar. Her grandmother is her guide in this subversive behavior, though Ivy also learns to be cold and calculating by example through her mother. When she’s in eighth grade, Ivy goes to a private middle school and meets Gideon, the golden child son of a local politician. Years later, Ivy reconnects with Gideon, and becomes determined to marry him. In fact, she will stop at nothing to become his wife, even though he leaves her unsatisfied. While engaged to Gideon, Ivy carries on a dangerous affair with the guy she’d met as a child, her neighbor who’d she’d lost her virginity to, and who is also an outsider. Yet while Ivy never feels passion for Gideon, she never wavers in her desire to marry him, so she can achieve the wealth and status his family represents.
“In the same way water trickles into even the tiniest cracks between boulders, her personality had formed into crooked shapes around the hard structure of her Chinese upbringing.” Much of what drives Ivy comes from her childhood struggles, the expectations placed upon her, and the feeling that she wasn’t classically smart or beautiful the way “American” kids are. Ivy stole because she didn’t have what she felt she needed, and she lied so she could get ahead. She viewed life as a battle, and “To show you were wounded from battle was to lose the war.”
Ivy is definitely a compelling character, if not sympathetic or likable. The story kept me interested and I sped through it, wanting to know what happened next. I was disappointed by the end, however. I felt the “twist” was pretty predictable, and Ivy didn’t change in any major way. I was left wondering what the point of the story was.
I have to recommend White Ivy because I really did enjoy reading it, but if you need a main character to be likable, or if you need a satisfying ending to have enjoyed a book, then skip White Ivy.
Click here to buy on Amazon:
I still remember those days leading up to having my first baby, the anxiety I felt that I might lose my identity once I became a mother. All I heard was, “nobody tells you hard it is,” it being motherhood. Yet I felt the opposite was true. Not that motherhood isn’t hard, but that the hardship was all I seemed to hear about. What took me by surprise was the overwhelming love and joy that this little baby brought to my life. This “little baby” is now a teenager, which reminds me… I did hear one other thing, over and over, once my son, Eli, was born. “Enjoy it, because he will grow up so fast!” That is so, so true! Sometimes I wish I could turn back time to those sweet baby years.
Now, I’m not trying to minimize the struggle many mothers go through. Eli was an easy baby and I had a lot of help. Perhaps that makes me less likely to empathize with stories like Little Disasters. It’s about several women who meet as soon-to-be mothers in their birthing class. One of them, Liz, is an emergency room pediatric doctor. Ten years after having her first baby, Liz encounters Jess, one of her mom-friends, who has brought her youngest child into the emergency room with a mysterious head injury. Jess swears her baby girl hit her head after slipping on the kitchen floor, but Liz can tell Jess is hiding something.
Liz is pressured by her supervisor to call child services, and then, of course, everything blows up. Chapters switch from Liz’s first person POV to third person narration focused on Jess, and there are other chapters with other characters spotlighted as well. Much of the plot is very compelling and I often read later into the evening than I’d planned, so I could put the pieces of the puzzle together. I felt both for Liz and Jess, though it wasn’t always clear the extent to which Jess was responsible for her daughter’s injury, so at times it was hard to sympathize.
Overall, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. After about three fourths of the way through, it lost steam and I felt like it turned into a public service announcement about how isolating and stressful taking care of an infant can be, and that mothers need support. It’s not that I disagree with any of that, but for my recreational reading, I don’t need a PSA. Later on the book redeemed itself, as a new mystery was revealed, but then I felt like the ending was a little too neatly wrapped up with a pretty bow.
The writing is good. The main characters are well drawn, though the supporting characters, not so much. I recommend it, but not enthusiastically.
Click here to buy on Amazon:
Nearly two years ago, before Covid 19 was a thing, my son Eli and I went to an escape room together. I had bought a Groupon, thinking it would be a fun mother/son activity, especially since Eli’s good at solving puzzles and I’m good at being a sidekick. I remember that he’d just had his braces put on that morning and that I’d injured my knee, so neither of us were in top form, and it was our first escape room ever and we were the only two people there. We tried to solve the clues, while he winced in pain and I hobbled around. We didn’t get very far, and we failed to complete the puzzle before the time was up. The guy running it was very nice; he showed us all the clues we’d missed and the secret passage we would have seen had been a bit more quick and clever, and then he reassured us that we did a good job for first-timers on our own.
I already look back on that day with nostalgia. That was before Eli was too busy with his teenage friends to want to do an escape room with me. That was back when doing something like an escape room - you know, rifling through non-sanitized objects in a poorly ventilated environment - was still possible. It’s a fond memory, made all the rosier after comparing it to the escape room described in Megan Goldin’s novel of the same name. I don’t know that I normally would have been drawn to this book, but it was an Audible daily deal narrated by one of my favorite voice actors, so I figured, why not? And it was great!
Throughout the novel, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is referenced. “Pretend inferiority and encourage their arrogance.” and “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” It’s related to the world of investment banking, and the dog-eat-dog environment that investment bankers work in.
The main character is Sarah Hall. She tells her story in first person POV - how she came to work at a highly prestigious and competitive financial firm. We can see both her rise and her downfall come from a mile away, and yet it also feels so unexpected, mostly because of the casual cruelty, selfishness, and misogyny of the people she works with. She remarks at one point, “There was always an undercurrent of conflict in the firm. The air crackled with a permanent sense of distrust. In the firm’s toxic worldview, conflict was good. Conflict made people work harder and smarter. It made them ruthless.”
At chapter breaks, the narration would switch to present day, 3rd person POV. Then we’d be in the elevator with the ruthless team Sarah had worked with, only Sarah isn’t there. Is she dead? Was she fired? It takes a while to find out, and it’s all done through slow reveals and character portraits of Vincent, Sylvie, Sam, and Jules (Sarah’s former coworkers). Each of them is hiding something, and they’re all stuck in this elevator that they’d thought was an escape room/team building exercise. They’d assumed they just needed to solve a few clues and they’d be out in an hour. At one point, one of them figures out a clue by deciphering a code, revealing the question, “How much do you trust each other?”
Of course, the irony is that nobody trusts the others, and none of them are worthy of trust. As time goes on, the elevator situation becomes more dangerous and more dire, until Sylvie, Sam, Vincent, and Jule’s very survival comes into question. Yet, as the chapters switch back to Sarah’s story and we learn of all the horrendous ways they treated her, we wonder. Do they deserve to survive?
This novel had me guessing until the end, and it was fun to learn about something I know almost nothing about - the cutthroat nature of investment banking. The only downside to reading this novel is it will make you want to stay away from elevators, but hey - especially during a pandemic, it’s healthier to take the stairs anyway.
I totally recommend Escape Room.
Ella Berman’s The Comeback is a post #metoo saga about Grace Turner, a Hollywood star who achieves fame at a very young age, develops the requisite addiction and emotional issues that childhood stars seem often to battle, and then drops suddenly and inexplicably into obscurity. When the story begins Grace is living with her parents in a suburb of LA, but after tensions with her mother bubble over, Grace returns to Hollywood and confronts her estranged husband, her manager and agent, and most namely, Able York, the director who led her to fame and ruin.
Information about Grace is revealed slowly, all through first person narration and often through flashbacks. Yet, it doesn’t take long for the reader to understand that Grace was sexually and emotionally abused by Able. However, it’s not something she talks to anyone in her life about, although most who are close to her, including Able’s wife Emelia, seem to assume it. When Grace’s high school aged sister is faced with her own situation around sexual and emotional abuse, Grace must decide how to both protect her sister and herself.
This book came with high expectations. It’s a pick of #ReadWithJenna (as in Jenna Bush & The Today Show), and was highly anticipated by Oprah, Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, and Marie Claire, among others. The subject matter is very topical, and the objectification and hyper sexualization of young women is something we as a society should have been tackling a long time ago. Reading this novel makes me better understand where stars like Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowen and Ashley Judd are coming from when they talk about the abuse they suffered in Hollywood. But apart from that, The Comeback was a good story that I didn’t want to end.
That’s because the suspense builds from the first page, but not in a scary, psychological thriller sort of way. Instead, the reader becomes emotionally invested in Grace and her struggles, and as her younger sister Esme needs Grace to publicly confront Able, so does the reader. Yet such a confrontation never feels inevitable.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say the story’s payout and Grace’s character arc are flawlessly executed. I strongly recommend The Comeback.
My Book Reviews
I love novels! My favorite genres are high-end women's fiction, suspense, and psychological thrillers, but occasionally I'll also pick up some chick lit or YA. I mostly read books on my kindle, and I also listen to audio books every morning when I go for my run.