White Oleander- Janet Fitch
This isn’t the kind of book I usually like, or even read. But strangely enough, I found myself getting involved with the characters and appreciating the not so subtle subtleties of the prose and plot.
Astrid Magnussen lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Ingrid. Ingrid is beautiful and arrogant, and teaches Astrid to be strong and ruthless. Daughter looks on with joy as mother meets and falls in love with Barry Kolker, a rich admirer, and then with horror as she murders him in cold blood when he ‘moves on’ to a younger woman.
She is thrown into jail, leaving Astrid to navigate the California foster care system with only the guidance of her mother’s letters. Her experiences are almost comically horrible. At her first home, she sleeps with the father and is shot by the emotionally unstable mother when the affair is discovered. When Astrid is mauled by dogs on her 15th birthday, I began to wonder if the book was meant to be a dark comedy!
The story redeems itself with brilliant character development though. With the kind of mistreatment and general scumbag-ness that Astrid is exposed to at a young age, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d turned out to be a mad-axe-murderer later in life. But the only mark that’s left on her is a tendency to get attached to anyone who’s nice to her, which is sad but understandable. Most of the time, she’s optimistic and forgiving.
The evolving relationship between Astrid and Ingrid is also very interesting. In the beginning of the story, Astrid idolizes her mother. She doesn’t truly understand the extent of the crime that she has committed. Ingrid gives her daughter advice, and tries to guide her by giving her lists of books to read. Later though, Astrid recognizes that her mother is a narcissist and begins to disregard her opinions.
There’s a dramatic faceoff at the end- Ingrid wants Astrid to testify in her favor in a retrial that she’s wangled for herself, but Astrid isn’t helping until she gets some answers about her childhood. Funnily enough she’s guilty about being manipulative despite the fact that her mother has pulled off similar tricks many times before. Made me respect the character even more.
Throughout the novel there are references to white oleander and poison. Barry is murdered with an extract of oleander, and Ingrid is fair, beautiful and poisonous in a less literal way.
All in all, a subtle psychological novel with beautiful prose. Recommended. If you like it, you should probably try We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s scary and thought provoking. But that’s a review for another day.