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White Oleander


White Oleander

This strange, and, at times, overpowering novel tells the story of a daughter's tortured struggle to understand herself outside of the fiery, all-consuming identity of her poetess mother. Astrid Magnussen has inherited her mother, Ingrid's striking Nordic beauty, alertness to the poetry of all things, and extraordinary expressive powers (though her instincts lie in art, not in verse). These qualities may always link Astrid to Ingrid, but they also bind them together in an oppressive, damaging relationship. Astrid must fight to recover from her hellish childhood and adolescence. During this ordeal, both the reader and the heroine begin to wonder if our heritage is ultimately our destiny.

For Astrid, at least, we should hope not. Her mother lives life recklessly and strenuously, and her epic personality is always in unrelenting pursuit of the Muse. Aspiring violently toward transcendence doesn't prove to be the prescription for an emotionally available mother. Despite the mournful neglect of her child, Astrid clings helplessly to her, because she is Astrid's only home. But Ingrid's behavioral and emotional excesses inevitably force her into a confrontation with conventional society. Murdering a scornful ex-lover lands her in prison for life, and forces Astrid to shuttle off to a series of mostly dreadful Los Angeles foster homes, where her wounding, but empowering experiences, punctuated by the tricky letters from her jailed, indefatigable mother, form the bulk of the long novel.

Fitch's writing is almost maniacally poetic, piling simile upon metaphor upon simile, and forming, ultimately, a shivery, often gorgeous, narrative. This, compounded with sophisticated philosophical and artistic allusions and quiet observation of tragicomic detail, builds an unmistakable voice for Astrid, one which is both the voice of a yearning artist and of an aching human. Ultimately, Astrid's redemption lies in her recognition that both these identities are dependent on the other, art feeding compassion, compassion feeding art.

Reviewed by Joanna Neborsky on January 24, 2011

White Oleander
by Janet Fitch

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316284955
  • ISBN-13: 9780316284950