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Book Review: White Oleander by Janet Fitch (4/5)

21 May

I have an odd odyssey with this book. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Oprah a few years ago. I found out only after I’d finished it that the audiobook was an abridged edition and I was livid. I stuck this book at the end of my TBR and waited until I’d forgotten a lot of it to start it again. I think I’d forgotten enough of it or enough had been cut out that this felt like a new experience for me. I started this as an ebook but had issues with the hold and the book returning so I finished it in print.

Cover image via Goodreads

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Summary from Goodreads:

Everywhere hailed as a novel of rare beauty and power, 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.

Astrid’s story is beautiful and ugly at the same time. Her life with her mother is minimal but happy but when she’s ripped away, things change. She lands in foster homes that are rough in one way or another. They force her to learn independence and how to navigate life on her own. It’s interesting to see how Astrid hardens from Starr’s house to Rena’s. The Astrid who’s forced to sell her dress wouldn’t convert to Christianity like she did at Starr’s.

The variety of characters in this was wonderful. Each of the houses Astrid lived in was its own little worlds and they were created with great care. Marvel’s home was the most interesting to me since it’s what I’m afraid of suburban life becoming: brainwashed by a big TV and caring about my grey roots and my husband noticing I’m not 29 anymore. Claire’s world was the most mesmerizing, with its high-culture art and the allure of acting and producing. The differences between these houses were amazing and showcased Fitch’s ability to create new and interesting characters easily.

Starr was my favorite character. She was a horrible person, but she was entertaining to watch. She changed so much because of her jealousy and seeing her revert before Astrid’s eyes was incredible. She lost her religion, her man, and her family in such short succession that I wondered how much of it could be realistic but I think it all was. She was an addict and one little stumble led to freefall back to square one.

There wasn’t a lot I related to in this story. Most of the characters were very different from me and my family. Even the ones that were in similar housing situations were composed very differently on the inside. Astrid’s story itself was too unique for me to relate to. I think the escapism of it was part of the appeal.

Janet Fitch
Image via the author’s website

I enjoyed it when Astrid was at Claire’s house. It was too good to believe that life had finally become simple for Astrid. Her story was meant to be a tragedy. It was just a matter of finding out what made Claire’s life imperfect. No one’s life is perfect. I think things would have turned out differently if Ingrid had never been involved; I agree with Astrid on that number. Ingrid had a way of getting under everyone’s skill and she exploited this ability to undermine Astrid’s life with Claire. It made me hate her as much as Astrid did in the end.

Life with Amelia was hard to read about. It was horrible to think someone could starve children the way she did and deny people food. The measures the girls had to take to survive were understandable. I don’t know how much that section of the book helped develop Astrid’s character and it’s the only section I would have cut.

No one’s life is easy, Astrid’s especially. The homes she lived in helped her see that no one has it easy and everyone suffers in one way or another. Even what we think is ideal, the beauty we seek isn’t perfect and it doesn’t last. The beauty Olivia shows her doesn’t last and it isn’t real love. Things fall apart around Astrid like they do to the people in the homes she lives in. She learns that she’s not unique and no one is going to take pity on her and make her life easier. And she learns to make a life for herself the way she wants it to be.

Writer’s Takeaway: The writing in this book is beautiful. There’s no way to learn that except by practice so it’s clear Fitch writes a lot. She describes things with amazing beauty that I’d be lucky to imitate even 30% of the time. It’s like anything else: practice, practice, practice.

This book was spellbinding in its tragedy and triumph. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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