White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
I picked up White Oleander during my first trip to LA last month. One of the friends I was visiting was reading it at the time, and she said “Yeah it’s kind of a bummer but I really enjoy reading it.” And if I had to sum up my whole experience of reading White Oleander, I would probably say that exact thing. Janet Fitch writes beautiful, lyrical prose, but jeeeeeeeeeeesus chips was this a depressing book. Not quite in a “I am going to spend the next three days sobbing” kind of way like Where the Red Fern Grows, or in a “Mankind is utterly doomed” kind of way like 1984, or even a “What the fuck is wrong with this author and why does everybody LIKE this” kind of way like The Velveteen Rabbit. White Oleander is pervasively sad, and there are many times when we are given hope that we know is going to be miserably crushed in the next chapter. However, it ends on a neutral (if not slightly positive) note.
So, now that you know very specifically how depressing this book is or is not, we can get to a bit of plot summary: Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, is a frighteningly intense poet who goes to prison after murdering her former lover with the poison of the white oleander flower. Like I said, INTENSE. Astrid is bounced through a series of foster homes (all varying levels of depressing) from the time she is 12 until she turns 18.
This is a coming-of-age novel, and one that focuses on the relationships between mothers and daughters, and more specifically on how men ruin the mother-daughter relationship. I think Janet Fitch must have had serious issues with her own father, because male characters with any redeeming qualities are few and far between. In White Oleander, men are cause for obsession, irredeemable selfishness, and almost always betrayal. At one point, Ingrid calls fatherhood a “social construct,” which is a really interesting (but, you know, hideously depressing idea) and there are not many examples in the book that prove her wrong.
That said, the real villain in the story here is Ingrid, and one of my favorite things about the novel is how Fitch just lets Ingrid be terrifying and evil. She’s brilliant, sure, but you also get the impression that if this were a different kind of book she’d fly around on a broomstick and turn young princes into beasts and throw people off bridges if they didn’t answer her riddle correctly. She’s Medusa and Medea, the best and the worst example of a woman. She’s brilliant, she’s hilarious, and she’s eerily charming and you might want to watch out because she might kill you just because she’s bored and she thinks it might make great material for a poem later.
Her daughter has a bit of a Bella Swann complex, in that she’s a blank slate and generally mirrors whichever woman happens to be passing through her life at the moment, but it is so, so, sosososososo great to watch her go from being a terrified pre-teen to naive teenager to hardened street rat to survivor to artist. Astrid makes a lot of terrible decisions in the book because of her need for love and acceptance, and each mistake leaves it share of mental (and physical) scars, but she grows. She also doesn’t spend a lot of time beating herself up with regret, which I appreciate.
This is definitely a book-club type book, in that there’s a lot of heavy ~*~symbolism~*~ and there’s a lot you can talk about in a way that will make you feel very literary and smart. It does indeed have very lush and descriptive writing (think Francesca Lia Block for adults), and some pretty raw emotional depths. Thankfully, it never gets overly sentimental, and those looking for a Big Redemption or a Grand Emotional Speech will be disappointed. It is an excellent read, and I would highly recommend it to any other woman. Even the sad parts are good, I promise.