Review: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Title: White Oleander
Author: Janet Fitch
First Published: May 1999
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Source: Library
390 pages




On the flap
Astrid Magnussen, the teenage narrator of Janet Fitch's engrossing first novel, White Oleander, has a mother who is as sharp as a new knife. An uncompromising poet, Ingrid despises weakness and self-pity, telling her daughter that they are descendants of Vikings, savages who fought fiercely to survive. And when one of Ingrid's boyfriends abandons her, she illustrates her point, killing the man with the poison of oleander flowers. This leads to a life sentence in prison, leaving Astrid to teach herself the art of survival in a string of Los Angeles foster homes.

As Astrid bumps from trailer park to tract house to Hollywood bungalow, White Oleander uncoils her existential anxieties. "Who was I, really?" she asks. "I was the sole occupant of my mother's totalitarian state, my own personal history rewritten to fit the story she was telling that day. There were so many missing pieces." Fitch adroitly leads Astrid down a path of sorting out her past and identity. In the process, this girl develops a wire-tight inner strength, gains her mother's white-blonde beauty, and achieves some measure of control over their relationship. Even from prison, Ingrid tries to mold her daughter. Foiling her, Astrid learns about tenderness from one foster mother and how to stand up for herself from another.

I had heard previously how good/bad this book is. Most people have been powerfully affected by it. They either really liked it or really disliked it. After reading it, I could see how it could sway you in either ways. You could either take the story at face value and be swayed by it, as I did, or you could critically analyze it and call upon its credibility.

My opinion
Janet Fitch writes White Oleander in a very eloquent style. Poetic writing is not some thing I enjoy usually (since I'm pathetic in poetry). But I didn't have to strain myself here. The writing flowed easily, in fact, I couldn't wait to turn page after page to know what happens next.

White Oleander is told from Astrid's perspective. She sketches a very vivid portrait of her mother, Ingrid - someone who scorns on anyone "beneath" her, someone who is highly appreciative of beauty and condemning of who/what doesn't possess it, someone who believes she has to be in control and jealously frowns on anyone Astrid gets attached to.

Beauty was my mother's law, her religion. You could do anything you wanted, as long as you were beautiful, as long as you did things beautifully. If you weren't, you just didn't exist. She had drummed it into my head since I was small. Although I had noticed by now that reality didn't always conform to my mother's ideas.

Astrid's mother, Ingrid, did not give herself to men. Men came to her, but she frowned on them. Until Barry Kolker came along and proved to be her weakness. When Barry leaves her for another woman, Ingrid's methodical jealousy has her murdering him by poison. Ingrid's sentence to jail starts a six-year transformation in Astrid from the girl who worships her mother to someone who tries to stay away from her.

Astrid's years in foster care are almost gut-wrenching to read about. That a 12-year old girl goes through so much makes it an even more poignant reading. Astrid happens to be very mature for her age. Her initial confusion over what her mother did soon gives way to an acceptance of what she will have to go through. All her foster parents have shades of gray. Every house she stays in, she learns something formidable about human life in general. She slowly comes to learn how to manipulate human wants and desires. In so many instances, I could see quite a bit of her mother, in herself.

White Oleander is very powerfully written. It describes a very harrowing picture of the foster care in LA, where Astrid grew up. A foster parent who suspects her of sleeping in with her boyfriend, another one who suspects her of being lesbian and having a relationship with the prostitute next door, yet another who encourages pot and alcohol in the house. What was saddening was Astrid's belief that she deserved it. Which child deserves any of this? Sometimes I wanted to shake the people around her for being blind to her - A 13-year-old aware of the manipulative power of sex, the lifting effect of drugs and being attracted to old or married men.

However dire these situations, White Oleander also strongly advocates that human companionship can be found in the least expected places. In the geeky studious child who is very knowledgeable about nature, in a woman who sleeps with men for money, in the childless mother, who adores Astrid but who is highly suspicious about her husband's fidelity, in the pregnant foster-child who looks to Astrid for support during her pregnancy. These little tales of love moved me just as much as the harsh tales did. What made the sorrows more unbearable is that the good events didn't last. Much as Astrid was being doomed to a life of hardships, she learned from these situations to get the upper-hand.

I did get bugged initially by the fact that hardships follow Astrid. I would not have liked White Oleander if Astrid never grew to love and feel loved. The one foster-home that gives her that moves me more than the shady foster-homes she has been in. I loved Astrid's coming of age in this book, and how she adapted to different situations, but I liked Ingrid's character-sketch more. Janet Fitch has painted a sharp picture of Astrid's mom, with all her staunchly held beliefs and her conviction that Astrid could only "belong" to her. It was a portrait that one would hate instantly and yet be enamored by its sharp colors and strong inward pulls.

I would strongly recommend White Oleander to you. It is very hard to do justice to this book, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn't quite get it right. So I'll just say, go ahead and read it!

Title Demystified
Did you know that white oleanders are poisonous? My knowledge of botany is at the very bottom, so this particular fact was quite new to me. White Oleander is all about the poisons in the human spirit. There is the frequent mention of "sin virus", when someone yearns for something wrong - sex, drugs, or anything that is frowned upon. There is the reference to Ingrid's poisonous tentacles that sweetly lures everyone and then jumps in for the kill. White Oleander is a strong tale of how the many poisons in a person can overcome the good feelings and undermine a relationship.

Cover Art Demystified
I was initially captivated by the cover of this book, way before reading its synopsis. The beautiful woman slowly unzipping herself, gives me the image of human temptations and manipulations. Human poisons, in other words, that much laces and interleaves the whole story of Astrid and Ingrid.

What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.

Did you love it or were you bothered by anything in or about the book?

13 comments:

Stephanie said...

What a beautiful review! I read this years ago, and Astrid's experiences in foster care have stuck with me strongly. And I agree with you that an important theme is that companionship is found in unexpected places. I loved this: "These little tales of love moved me just as much as the harsh tales did."

Ash said...

I never planned on reading this but your review has me reconsidering. Thanks for sharing!

Aarti said...

Wow, I had no idea what the plot of this book was, but it sounds INTENSE. I don't think I am in the mind frame to read it at this time. Possibly not ever. But I'll keep an eye out for it!

Lynne said...

Great review of this book, Aths. Can't wait to read my copy that's been sitting on my shelf for a YEAR. You've motivated me. (Now if I can just stop putting books on hold at the library!)

bermudaonion said...

I read this when Oprah first picked it for her book club, so it's been a long time, but I remember loving it. Glad you did too!

Natalie W said...

I read this years ago and its definitely an intense book. I very much enjoyed it!
I really like how you wrote you review too!
Natalie :0)

Dana said...

I read this book as a teenager and it really had an effect on me as a teenager - so much so that I still remember some of Astrid's foster home experiences, even though it's been a long time since I last picked up the book.

Thanks for demystifying the title - very interesting!

Emidy said...

Oh, this sounds gorgeous. And very powerul! I love those types of books that you never forget, so I'll be looking out for this at the library next time. Thanks for reviewing it - now I know another book I want to read!

Emidy
from Une Parole

brichtabooks said...

This sounds great! I have always seen this book around but never knew what it was about or picked it up. Your review was great! Thanks for sharing! I think I have yet another one ot add to my TBR list!

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I read White Oleander maybe 8 or 10 years ago and at the time I loved it. It's actually one of the books I've been meaning to reread eventually. Perhaps I'll get to it soon...

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

I haven't tried this one. The movie was disturbing but good. Thanks for the review ;) Happy Monday!

Carina said...

I read this one as a teenager when it was on a recommended list of possible titles for a comparative essay - even though I ended up using a different book for the final project, I did get a couple of good reads from the list, including White Oleander and Fall On Your Knees. I loved it! A few years later, I watched the movie and remember not being even close to as impressed with it as I was with the novel. It's on my shelf still ... maybe I'll go back and re-read it soon. You've reminded me how much I enjoyed it then, and I'll probably get more out of it now. :-)

Aths said...

Stephanie, thank you! :) I'm glad you loved the book too.

Ash, I hope you chose to read it!

Aarti, It is intense. :) Very much that I got a headache. No kidding!

Lynne, Pick it up, pick it up! :) I can't wait to hear your thoughts!

Kathy, Glad that you loved it too!

Natalie, thank you! Glad that you loved it too!

Dana, I agree this book can have a HUGE effect on the reader!

Emidy, I hope you chose to read it!

Julie, you have to read it! It's amazing!

Heather, wow, I don't know if I will ever read it, possibly not. But I won't ever forget it either!

Juju, I have to watch this movie next!

Carina, thank you. :) I have to watch the movie, but I'm not in a hurry, since if I watch right away, I know I'm not going to like it!