14 June 2010

White Oleander by Janet Fitch


White Oleander
By Janet Fitch
(Kindle Edition)


Astrid Magnussen, the teenage narrator of Janet Fitch's engrossing first novel, White Oleander, has a mother who is as sharp as a new knife. An uncompromising poet, Ingrid despises weakness and self-pity, telling her daughter that they are descendants of Vikings, savages who fought fiercely to survive. And when one of Ingrid's boyfriends abandons her, she illustrates her point, killing the man with the poison of oleander flowers. This leads to a life sentence in prison, leaving Astrid to teach herself the art of survival in a string of Los Angeles foster homes.

As Astrid bumps from trailer park to tract house to Hollywood bungalow, White Oleander uncoils her existential anxieties. "Who was I, really?" she asks. "I was the sole occupant of my mother's totalitarian state, my own personal history rewritten to fit the story she was telling that day. There were so many missing pieces." Fitch adroitly leads Astrid down a path of sorting out her past and identity. In the process, this girl develops a wire-tight inner strength, gains her mother's white-blonde beauty, and achieves some measure of control over their relationship. Even from prison, Ingrid tries to mold her daughter. Foiling her, Astrid learns about tenderness from one foster mother and how to stand up for herself from another.

I absolutely loved this book and it was difficult to put down.  White Oleander is a very intense story, at times so harsh that it made me cringe, not only is the writing very well done, but the detail illuminates the story but without slowing it down.

The characters are heartbreakingly real and their struggles are almost beyond imagination. On the surface this is a story about a mother and daughter, but not the usual relationship we have come to expect in a novel.  Over the course of the novel, Astrid transforms from an innocent girl to an incredibly sharp, self-sufficient young woman who ultimately manages to gain the upper hand in this complex mother-daughter relationship.  Astrid finds love as she learns (often the hard way) what love really is and that ultimately, she is a giver of love.

I can't say that White Oleander is a pleasant read, because the content is unbelievable depressing. However, it's an amazing story of struggle and survival, and this book should be on everyone's must-read list.

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