White Oleander by Janet Fitch was a book I picked up from the clearance section at work on a whim. Of course I had heard of it. A few “edgy” girls I know on Facebook list it as one of their favorite books (I didn’t even knew they read). I knew they had made a film of the book in 2002, and that it was an Oprah pick. Despite my cyncism, these never deterred me from picking it up. Like so much in life, money ended up being the determining factor—it was sitting on Half-Price’s $2 clearance shelf, and I couldn’t help myself.
I’m glad I did. As with any darkly emotional, “significant” book, much has already been said on its themes (abandonment, the foster care system, reclaiming your identity), but I enjoy reading books without any adjoining criticism or reviews: instead, I love diving into stories face first not knowing what I may find. Was this book going to shock me, or more tellingly, make me cry? Was Janet Fitch a good writer? Was I going to be disatisfied or relieved I chose this book? Sometimes, I like not knowing. Discovering the answers to these questions on your own is a joy unlike any other. When it comes to books like White Oleander—in which so much has already been said/discussed—it feels like you’re discovering them for the first time.
That’s the way I felt diving into White Oleander. The story follows Astrid, the daughter of the disturbed and dangerous poet Ingrid Magnussen, through a series of foster homes in LA after her mother murders her boyfriend. Astrid is beaten, shot, attacked by a pack of wild dogs, ignored and abused. There’s also plenty of sex, drugs and alcohol, as well as affection from the most surprising sources.
While, like I said, much has been written on what the book says about the foster care system, I thought its most engaging attraction was the perverted relationship between Astrid and her mother. The book is primarily a coming-of-age story: a tale in which Astrid learns to seperate herself from the child her mother created, and then grow into a young woman of her own choosing. Astrid begins the book desperately dependent on her mother—Astrid speaks of how she was nothing without her mother’s words, approval, touch. As a poet, Ingrid is frequently negligent of her daughter, and Astrid laps up her mother’s attention like milk:
I liked it when my mother tried to teach me things, when she paid attention. So often when I was with her, she was unreachable. Whenever she turned her steep focus to me, I felt the warmth that flowers must feel when they bloom through the snow, under the first concentrated rays of the sun…I liked it when my mother shaped me this way. I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter’s hand.
During the following years in foster care, Astrid must not only learn to fend for herself, but also disengage herself from everything her mother taught her. In murdering her boyfriend—and in such a calculated manner—Ingrid performs one of the most selfish acts for a mother: willfully, knowingly abandoning her child. Throughout the book, Ingrid shows a blatent disregard for Astrid’s problems in foster care. She only shows interest (and stops talking about herself and her new fame as a prisoner-poet) whenever Astrid admits to experiencing happiness in her foster families. When she’s baptized, whenver she makes friends…her mother mocks her. Her mother tries to convince Astrid, a budding artist, that artists are best shaped through neglect and abuse. According to her mother, it’s OK that her daughter suffers.
This narrative strain particularly infuriated me. Ingrid cares nothing for Astrid’s happiness, and clearly doesn’t want her to have a happy, safe, healthy childhood. Selfish as she is, Ingrid’s determined to hoard Astrid’s soul for as long as possible, even if she’s behind bars. And yet, even though she seems the perfect monster, Ingrid too is pitiable. Astrid is no saint.
It’s this constant tug-of-war behind righteous indignation and brutal reality that kept me locked into Fitch’s story hour after hour. I didn’t want to put the book down. Fitch’s writing is also reason itself for reading; her words are lyrical and haunting, and paint the perfect picture of a family torn apart by hate, love and the gritiest reality I’ve yet encountered in modern fiction. I want to read more of Fitch, but at the very least, I encourage everyone to bump this classic up your reading list and enjoy its brilliance. I promise you, it will leave an impression.