White Oleander is a painfully beautiful first novel about a young girl growing up the hard way. It is a powerful story of mothers and daughters, their ambiguous alliances, their selfish love and cruel behaviour, and the search for love and identity. Astrid has been raised by her mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet in a loving but isolated relationship. Ingrid is a free spirit given to making poetical, pretentious pronouncements who wilfully neglects her daughter and overlooks her motherly duties. Astrid forgives her everything as her world revolves around this beautiful creature until Ingrid murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life. Astrid becomes one of the thousands of foster children in Los Angeles, the damaged people looking only to survive. As she steers her way through this changed reality – a series of homes, guns, drugs, suicide and dysfunctional families and couples – she finds strength in her unshakeable certainty of her own worth, her need to paint and her unfettered sense of the absurd. Astrid’s fierce determination to survive and be loved makes her an unforgettable figure in this elegantly crafted debut novel which is like a siren song ready to seduce and hypnotise you.
Oprah Book Club® Selection, May 1999: 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. Like the weather in Los Angeles–the winds of the Santa Anas, the scorching heat–Astrid’s teenage life is intense. Fitch’s novel deftly displays that, and also makes Astrid’s life meaningful. –Katherine Anderson