I read this book a few years ago, and recently while passing by the bookshelf it caught my eye again. I picked it up and flicked through the pages remembering all of the beautiful writing and fluid prose. Fast forward a few hours later and I had it read again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have a habit of picking up books, books that suck you in and cut you off from the world.
White Oleander was published by Janet Fitch in 1999 and later in 2002 it was adapted to film by Peter Kosminsky. I haven’t seen the film yet but I plan to very soon. It has an amazing female cast; Alison Lohman, Robin Wright-Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and Renée Zellweger.
Anyways, back to the book. The story is told from the perspective of 12 year old Astrid Magnussen who lives in Los Angeles, California. She and her mother, Ingrid Magnussen, live a solitary life together attending museums, reading books by Dmitry and Dostoyevsky and doing poetry readings. Ingrid, Astrids mother, uses her charm to lure in men and have carefree relationships. She teaches Astrid everything about men and how to manipulate them. When she is described in the book it is almost done so in an occult manner. Her beauty is all consuming, almost bewitching, but your conscience doesn’t fail to tell you that all this woman seems to be missing is a pulse. Astrid relies solely on her mother, yet Ingrid is self-centered, cold and eccentric and lives by her own set of rules. She seems to forget she has a daughter at all. And as a result of this, quiet early on we see that Astrid has a fear of abandonment by her mother. This prevails throughout the entire continuance of the book.
Her mother begins to date a man, Barry, who she is first repulsed by but allows him to pursue her regardless. Astrid watches her mother break every self-imposed “rule” as she becomes more involved with him. Eventually, it is revealed that he is cheating on her with younger women. This leaves Ingrid enraged, and although she attempts numerous times for a reconciliation, she is humiliated by Barry and murders him. You are left wondering at this point how Janet Fitch could come up with so many narcissistic qualities for one character, and you can see how deep this womans disturbing character runs. It is genius how Janet Fitch orchestrates every fine detail of the murder through her writing.
Astrid is then forced to begin her journey into the homes and lives of various care givers and foster parents. Her first experience is with an ex stripper and recovered drug and alcohol addict named Starr. This is also where Astrid has her first sexual relationship with her carers partner, and where the young Astrid discovers the power of her sexuality and the things she has learned from her Mother. All of the homes that she is passed along to are as bad as the last and the continuing despair of the situation has you wondering whether or not you will ever see a happy ending for this girl. However, Astrid is taken in by the very loving, empathetic former actress Claire Richards, who does everything she can to help Astrid and to care for her. You cannot help to feel the cracks on the page of this carefully brushed-over, delicate environment however, and events turn against her as her carer commits suicide.
At this point Astrid is only 17 and she finds herself in a care centre where she becomes acquainted with a boy called Paul Trout who develops a close relationship with her through their mutual interest in art. Eventually she finds another carer and she also develops another sexual liaison with her carers partner, even though he is twice her age. She becomes close friends with a girl in the home and they get high. Astrid has vivid thoughts about a woman called Annie while she is tripping out on acid. Her mother Ingrid, is still in contact with her through letters which are very disturbing in their own right, and you can taste the manipulation through them. She tells Astrid that she has built up some admirers and fans who all believe she is innocent and they are trying to help her get out of jail and they build a case for her. However, the case depends on Astrid testifying for her Mother and it is at this point that she realises the position of power she has over her mother for the first time in her life. She tells her mother that if she wants her help she has to answer some questions that she has. Astrid asks Ingrid about Barry, her father and then Annie. Ingrid is devastated to learn that Astrid remembers Annie at all, and reveals that Annie was a babysitter whom Ingrid left Astrid with for over a year. Astrid then realises at this point, why she fears abandonment from her mother. She has a complete outpouring of emotion and tells Ingrid how damaged she is because of what she did to her. Astrid gives her mother a choice; to have her testify, or have her return to the person her mother knew her as. Ingrid makes the choice not to ask Astrid to lie for her, and lets her go.
Astrid, now 20, lives in Germany with Paul Trout and she makes old suitcases into individual art pieces that represent the different foster homes she stayed in. They detail the journey she has taken from her mothers imprisonment, or her Mothers imprisonment of her depending what way you look at it, to the present day. What happens next is an acceptance of her life with Paul in Germany and she forgets about California. She embraces her life, the past that has made her who she is, and even her experiences with her mother.
This book touched me. I became obsessed with Astrids character, her path of sorting out her past and her identity. I enjoyed going through the process of putting together all the missing pieces of her life with her and watching her develop this amazing inner strength when she was faced with such desperate and solitary circumstances. I celebrated, almost cartwheeled, when she realised the hatred she felt for her mother when she realised how she was trying to manipulate her, even from a prison cell. Even though Janet Fitch created such a complex character in the form of the sociopath Ingrid Magnussen, you can almost thank her for the rare gifts she did pass on to her daughter. She was a brilliantly educated poet who gave her attributes that helped Astrid to survive her years in foster care: strength, independence, and a love of learning, with a very sharp intellect.
This is not “chick-lit”. You are not going to walk around on a cloud after this book. There is no swooning male character to fall in love and become obsessed with. If you pick up a book with the constant expectancy of a happy ending, then you are going to miss out on some great books. I can never understand people who want a happy ending all the time. Great literature is about overcoming obstacles, teaching lessons and going on a journey with the character where you might find out things about yourself in the process. Don’t cheat yourself to a sheltered, filtered existence of romantic novels and the odd Cecelia Ahearn or Amy Hubberman type of garbage that some magazine told you to read. Get yourself involved in something gritty – like this book.
All in, White Oleander is a story that digs deep into the soul of a foster child and captures the importance and the permanent bond that exists between a mother and a child, no matter how toxic that relationship may be. The isolation and despair that runs throughout this book, I believe, is something the author purposely meant to do. I think it would be a fantastic read for anyone studying child psychology or those who wish to work in childcare. This book is about the fact that not everyone gets a happy ending, and that there are almost always loose ends, in anything we endeavour. It will make you look deep into all of the ugliness, all of the nooks and crannies of society that you didn’t want to look into, that you have chosen to ignore. You will either love me or hate me for telling you about this book. Enjoy!