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White Oleander ()

Oprah's Book Club

There's a famous scene in The Untouchables (borrowed, I believe, from Battleship Potemkin) where a baby stroller goes bouncing down a stairwell in the midst of a gun battle.  Brian DePalma, like Sergei Eisenstein, uses our fear for the infant to heighten the tension of the scene.  White Oleander is one long jouncing ride down the stairs.

Astrid Magnussen is the thirteen year old daughter of Ingrid, a beautiful but demented, selfish, narcissistic, egomaniacal poetess.  When Ingrid is shunned by a lover, she kills him and is imprisoned.  Astrid is sent to a series of foster homes where she encounters a variety of fairly dubious maternal figures--a born again stripper, a racist living next to a prostitute, a totalitarian Mexican, a depressive actress and a tough Russian.  Given the purpleness of Fitch's prose, at every stop the reader is sort of waiting for disaster to strike, for the baby to spill out of the carriage, but most of the foster homes actually turn out to be reasonably decent places. In fact, it is Astrid herself who manages to screw up almost every one of these homes, or when she doesn't, her mother does out of jealousy.  Despite this sequence of disasters, she manages to emerge as a fairly likable and pulled together young woman with a healthy contempt for, but an unhealthy attraction to, her mother.

I thought the book worked best as a cautionary tale about the atomization of the family.  Astrid does not know her own father (in fact, men are little more than props in the book) and there is no family member to take her in when her mother is jailed.  The families she is placed with are pretty dysfunctional.  And, of course, Ingrid is hardly a mother, doing little more than encouraging Astrid to read dreck like Henry Miller and Anais Nin and periodically warning her not to become close to her surrogate families.

The child-in-danger tension and the desperation of the broken family made the book readable.  I was less impressed with Fitch's much praised prose.  Like the oleander of the title, I thought it had a hothouse effect; pretty words strung together do not necessarily make for good writing.  For example, here's Astrid describing her mother:

    The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full.
    Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.

Which is it?  Is she full breasted or knifelike?  The two are mutually exclusive.  There are times when this kind of language seems to run out of control and become too cloying; luckily the episodic story usually brings it back to earth.  Likewise, the novel sometimes teeters on the brink of soap opera or daytime talk show antics (the families often seem like they are drawn from episodes of Oprah or Jerry Springer) and threatens to descend into cheap melodramatics, but then the next section starts and begins a new cycle.

Overall, I'd say that this was one of the better books I've read from the Oprah Book collection, despite some significant flaws.  And what really saved it for me was Astrid's capacity to judge her mother quite harshly and hold her responsible for her actions.  The absence of a sickening mother/daughter reunion and reconciliation was especially welcome, though hard to square with the obsessive fascination expressed by Astrid throughout the book.


Grade: (C+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Janet Fitch Website
    -Great girl trash: The author of "White Oleander" picks five great trashy reads (Janet Fitch, Salon)
    -Interview: Making a monster (Salon)
    -READERS GUIDE :  White Oleander  by Janet Fitch  (Book Browse)
    -Review: Mother's in Jail, but Her Daughter Is the Prisoner (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -Review (Trish Deith Rohrer, Salon)
    -White Oleander (Oprah's Book Club)
    -FIRST CHAPTER: White Oleander