Friday, August 14, 2009

White Oleander (Janet Fitch)

After a few consecutive weeks of comic books, I thought it was time to get back on the literary track again. White Oleander is a very popular book that I'm sure has been reviewed to death, but it's what I finished this week, so it's what I'm reviewing.


Astrid Magnussen is a twelve-year-old girl living in Los Angeles with her mother, Ingrid. Ingrid is a poet and a free spirit, often whisking her daughter away to foreign countries for months or years at a time, going wherever she feels like going. They have very few attachments to the world, as Ingrid considers them to be above most other mortals. When she meets and begins dating a man named Barry Kolker, Ingrid goes against her better judgment and begins changing her ways. She and Astrid do "normal" things with Barry: go to the farmer's market, horse races, Dodger games, Catalina. But when Barry breaks off the relationship, Ingrid, already a little crazy, poisons him. With her mother serving a life sentence for murder, Astrid is forced into a series of foster homes, each more disturbing than the next.

The book is mainly about womanhood, identity, and questions on how much a person's past really affects their future. Astrid is perpetually bogged down by the memory of her mother and the feeling that, because she was raised without much love or affection in her life, she never had a chance to begin with. Everyone and everything that Astrid cares about is somehow taken away from her. She degenerates into a typical foster child, adapting to her less-than-perfect surroundings by doing things that she never would have considered doing if her mother was still around. She sleeps with one foster mother's boyfriend, begins drinking and doing drugs, and at one point is even reduced to panhandling on street corners. It's a very powerful book, and extremely well-written. Fitch goes all out, showing how bad a person's life can really get without a proper support system.

There are times when I think the book is a little extreme in its negativity, but that might be my personal taste. I also think that the book is just a little too long. There are a few dead spots in the novel where I was able to put it down for a while and didn't necessarily have a strong desire to pick it back up. That again might just be personal taste, however. Each foster home is like a different act in a very long play, and these "acts" usually wrap themselves up in a way that let's the reader take a break from the intense despair that at times overcomes Astrid. This wasn't my favorite book ever, and it might have more of an impact on women readers, but I definitely enjoyed it. There are plenty of issues that come up in the book that I as a man will never have to deal with, but it gave me some good insights into how difficult it must be to be a teenage girl and live like this. Much of the story is very tragic, but it's written so beautifully that it doesn't force you to take pity, just to observe and recognize that this is how it is in the world sometimes.


White Oleander
by Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch does a wonderful job of making this story come alive. Even though many of the events that take place are rather extreme, she presents them in a way that emphasizes the fact that this stuff happens all the time, though maybe not to everyone.

The novel is very poetic, and often includes letters and bits of haiku from Astrid's mother that show how detached from reality Ingrid truly is. The writing is very effective.

This is a very good book (Oprah's Book Club thinks so, too). I say check it out if you can. It might not blow you away, but I doubt you'll be disappointed.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

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