White Oleander by Janet Fitch

A review of the literary coming-of-age novel White Oleander by Janet Fitch.

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White Oleander is the story of Astrid, and Astrid’s mother Ingrid. Ingrid is a poet—wild, cold, dangerous, dazzling, manipulative—and Astrid is completely enthralled by her, like a moth dancing too close to a candle flame. But everything changes when Ingrid is imprisoned for poisoning the lover who rejected her. Astrid is thrown into the care system, and she journeys from foster home to foster home, each its own little universe, each a milestone in Astrid’s emotional maturation.

My feelings about White Oleander are rather muddled.

Astrid was an intriguing but often infuriating character. At one point I was wondering if Janet Fitch had been reading a lot of Thomas Hardy before she wrote this book, because it seemed like every bad thing that could happen to a person happened to Astrid. She gets shot, attacked by dogs, hooked on prescription drugs, abandoned, abused, starved…like, we get it, Fitch, she’s having a hard life. Jeez.

I loved the lyrical poetry of the writing—it was flowery without being purple, and although it was extravagant, it felt like a true representation of how Astrid saw the world. However, that ties in with my main beef, which is: Oh my hat this book is pretentious.

Ingrid is a poet, Astrid is an artist. They live in a world of gallery exhibitions and visits to the opera; everything is filtered through a lens of Art and Literature and Music, and everyone name-drops like crazy. It works for me, because I’m a pretentious twit at heart, and I understand that desire to name-drop and surround yourself with Good And Important Art because it gifts you with a barrier that not everyone can understand, and you know if they can breach that barrier then they are Like You and One Of Us and together you can be Not Like Other People.

As a result of that, I’m still not sure if the book is actually slagging off people who don’t listen to warm vinyl and go to art galleries and spend their time thinking about Life and The Meaning Of It All. Or maybe it’s saying that everyone has their own strategies for getting through their existence; some have art and literature like Astrid and Ingrid, and some have religion like Starr, and some have sex and pretty things like Olivia, and some have the hustle and scratch of living in the moment like Rena. Every one of Astrid’s foster homes is different and broken and meaningful in its own way, and as Astrid moves through them all, they all leave their mark on her and shape her on her way to adulthood.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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