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White Oleander by Janet Fitch - Book Review


White Oleander
Janet Fitch
Virago Press

Fiction-Net Rating 4 Star Rated Book

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Cover Story

"Janet Fitch writes with breathtaking beauty about the central theme of our age - the search for self. White Oleander is a remarkable debut novel." - Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

"This is what you're after when you're browsing the shelves for something good to read. White Oleander is a siren song of a novel, seducing the reader with its story, its language and, perhaps most of all, with its utterly believable (and remarkably diverse!) characters. The narrator is particularly memorable - there were times she made me want to cheer and weep simultaneously. Finishing this book made me feel gratefully bereft and I look forward to Janet Fitch's next work." - Elizabeth Berg, author of Durable Goods and Range of Motion

We Say

Many have suffered from a less than perfect childhood and for those that have endured and survived, the stories they tell make us vow we will not allow such suffering to occur again. In many cases, however, adversity creates characters we admire. Janet Fitch creates a very memorable character in her novel, White Oleander.

For the most part, this book is the story of a young girl's coming of age while she floats through the foster care system. Astrid's mother is convicted of murder and as a result, Astrid moves from foster home to foster home. With each move, Astrid is presented with conflicting ideas of morality. While some may feel the novel is a remarkable 'search for self' and coming of age story, I found the relationship between mother and daughter much more interesting. Astrid's suffering immediately captures our attention. Astrid is a little girl who is wise beyond her years because of her mother's less than conventional lifestyle.

Janet Fitch's portrayal of a young girl's fight to survive a less than nurturing parent is moving and realistic. Astrid spends her days trying to avoid causing her mother any trouble, fearful that her mother will no longer want her. Ingrid, Astrid's mother is beautiful and eccentric. Astrid believes that the only reason her mother holds a job is because she must provide for a daughter she doesn't really want. Astrid idolises her mother and as a result, she becomes well versed at reading her mother's emotions. Ingrid on the other hand does not realise that she doesn't really know her daughter.

After Ingrid is convicted and imprisoned, Astrid moves through a series of foster homes. Her various foster parents force her to reexamine everything her mother has taught her. Ingrid's lessons in survival are cold hearted and selfish, causing Astrid to wonder if her mother's beliefs are really valid. Janet Fitch has created a memorable relationship between Astrid and her mother. However, I found many events in young Astrid's life unbelievable. It is here that I believe the story loses some of its strength. I readily admit that there are problems with the foster care system but I found Astrid's experiences as a foster child a little too contrived to be believable. Fitch creates such a realistic relationship between Astrid and her mother that the sensationalism seemed unnecessary and it detracted from the beauty of the author's writing.

Perhaps the strength of this novel lies in Janet Fitch's ability to portray such a troubled mother and daughter relationship accurately and honestly. We are all products of our parents but how we choose to live our lives is distinctly influenced by our own life experiences. Ironically, Ingrid's attempt to teach her daughter how to be independent and to rely on no one ultimately causes Astrid to realise that her mother's self centered life is ultimately wrong. Eventually, Astrid realises that her mother creates her own reality to suit her selfish desires and needs. I found myself wanting the relationship between mother and daughter to be the main focus because Fitch does such a good job in that area.

White Oleander is an impressive book that demonstrates Janet Fitch's potential as a writer.

Review by: Yumi Nagasaki-Taylor

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