I was first told to read White Oleander by Janet Fitch two or three years ago by several well-read friends. It went on my Amazon wish list, and after I got it last Christmas, it languished on my bookshelf until finally, I decided to give it a try. I’m not sure why, but somehow I was expecting it to be dry, trying, and somewhat pedantic. Perhaps because so many people had great things to say about it, I wanted to believe it was bad.
But oh, this is a beautiful novel. Here’s the Amazon description:
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.
Though the story is very often dark, almost unpalatable, Astrid’s unforgettable language presses it into something soft and appropriately pale so that all that remains are her emotions–hope, fear, desperation, loneliness, abandonment, sorrow, love. Nearly every sentence of the novel made me want to stop and savor: “We looked out at the sepia pepper tree, the mud in the yard thick as memory” (p. 86); “The dark green Jaguar sedan parked in front of the plumbing contractor should have tipped me off, but I didn’t put it together until I saw her in the living room, the explosion of black curls, her bright red lipstick I recognized from the news” (p. 386); “How many children were like me, floating like plankton in the wide ocean?” (p. 52).
Good writing like this surges through me and makes me want to put down the book to get started on my own. This novel did more than just that; I hold it close in my mind now as I write to remind myself just how closely language can be coupled with story. Astrid’s mother is a poet: when they are living together, her narration is filled with quiet but perfect images; afterward, Astrid’s darkest periods are devoid of imagery. The writing is not just beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. It fulfills the story, and it makes Astrid’s emotional journey more palpable and palatable.
This book is beautiful for readers, but it is important for writers. It is a reminder, and it is evidence, that even in a novel, every word counts. Hold it, weigh it, taste it, measure it, listen to it, and only then decide whether it should stay. I can only hope that if I do that, I might one day write something nearly as beautiful as Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.