Made all the more impressive by the fact that this is her first novel, Janet Fitch captivates readers with the labyrinthine scope and visceral beauty of White Oleander, a story of survival and endurance in an uncertain world. While too heavy for a summer beach read, this fierce, provocative and tragic novel inspires awe, and is better suited to be read at home on the couch, in solitude, with limited outside stimulation (maybe a little Leonard Cohen in the background).
A white oleander is a beautiful but poisonous plant, and a metaphor for Ingrid Magnusson, a seductive, sociopathic poet convicted of murdering her lover, leaving her preteen daughter Astrid to a series of foster homes. The novel chronicles Astrid’s coming of age from a lonely, misguided girl down a self-destructive path to a hardened, independent eighteen-year-old who can hold her own against her mother’s domineering hold.
In a manner befitting The Odyssey, Astrid survives a variety of trying environments, from the trailer park to the slums, from poverty to luxury and back again, fighting abuse, hunger, harassment and personal loss, while grappling with the authority she gains and loses in her own sexuality. Though initially lacking in her own identity, Astrid develops into a hybrid of the various maternal figures who govern her life, resulting in a mesmerizing character study that pits nature against nurture. Her desire for stability, her yearning to be loved, her disillusionment and fatalism, all resonate in this stunning portrait of the human condition.
At times the narration is bogged down by the fact that Fitch epitomizes the indulgent writer; she’s a lover of the English language and a very verbose narrator who piles on similes and metaphors the way Picasso piled on bright colors, or the way Gertrude Stein favored repetition. At times this makes for beautiful, vivid imagery and great psychological depth; other times it is simply exasperating, and the readers’ five senses are overwhelmed. In this way, Fitch is both a master of language and an amateur, who has yet to learn that sometimes, less is more.
However, the story does emerge triumphant, as the characters drive the story and engage readers both mentally and emotionally, and the ending provides satisfying closure. So, needless to say, don’t be turned off by the Oprah sticker. It’s actually a splendid book.