By: Janet Fitch
Format: Paperback; my copy
White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid, whose odyssey through a series of Los Angeles foster homes-each its own universe, with its own laws, its own dangers, its own hard lessons to be learned-becomes a redeeming and surprising journey of self-discovery.
My first encounter with White Oleander was actually the movie adaptation from 2002; it was on the television but I always caught the latter half of the movie. Despite not seeing the first half of the movie (both times–only got around to seeing the whole movie a few years ago), I was always drawn in by Astrid’s narrative and Michelle Pfeiffer’s haunting and chilling portrayal of Ingrid Magnussen (I am baffled she was never nominated for this performance). I got around to the book a few years ago but re-read it again recently as I finally got a copy of my own of the book. I think this book is officially a favourite of mine now, it’s as evocative and haunting re-reading it now as it was when I first read it. May contain some minor spoilers ahead!
What really grabs me about this novel is the writing. From the first page, Astrid’s narrative is haunting, poetic (despite of whatever her mother says about her way with words, I think Astrid’s a very poetic person, reflecting her unique and artistic view of the world). It grabs you and just doesn’t let go. Even when things get rough for her, you keep turning the page, wanting to find out what happens, wanting to know whether things will be okay for her. I love the way she describes the change in season, how she describes her mother and the people around her, using symbolism at times to project what she’s feeling. Some people thought that the writing was overdone but I thought it was perfect in the context of this novel and whose daughter Astrid is.
Because I enjoyed the writing so much with its lyricism and crypticness, I can’t even begin to highlight what my favourite passage or quote is from this novel–there’s just too many!
The other striking aspect about this novel is the characterisation of Ingrid Magnussen. I haven’t read the author’s interview at the back of my copy of the novel but my understanding is that Ingrid was the first character that she drew up before the story was even formed? If so, that would totally make sense why Ingrid’s characterisation is so fleshed out. You can almost feel the coldness and the sharp edges through Astrid’s perspective and the way that Ingrid talks and writes. Her poetry’s wonderful to read but there’s that edge to it that Astrid often talks about, that danger lurking behind every word. Ingrid feels very deeply but when betrayed, she’s capable of doing anything to get back at people–and relishes in it, which is fascinating and frightful at the same time. She lives in her own world, which works for her as a writer and artist but doesn’t translate very well as a parent raising a young child, as Astrid learns over the years. Astrid’s final confrontation with her mother and the final revelation about Ingrid’s early years as a parent was intense, taut and dramatic, a fantastic pay-off to the build-up developing over the course of the novel.
Astrid’s journey through a number of foster homes is interesting and heart-breaking. Each home, however dysfunctional they were, taught her something about life, about herself. Along the way she’s also made mistakes and undergone some pretty dark stuff; at some points I just wondered whether things would ever look up for her. Her journey is an interesting one because it’s essentially a coming of age story; away from her mother’s interest and coming into contact with all of these different characters, Astrid discovers who she is as a person. Accompanying this discovery is the gradual change of opinion and understanding of her mother, culminating in her final scene with her mother.
There’s so much more I could say about this novel but I won’t as it would just give the whole story away and White Oleander is really one of those novels you need to read and discover for yourselves. The drama and the personal journey is just fantastic with plenty of family and character drama. I highly recommend it!