Books, Reviews

White Oleander: Review

Blog pact default! Shane and Anne both got a little distracted camping and didn’t put up their posts, the weasels. So here I am, squeezing in a post just before leaving for the weekend. Luckily, I just finished reading a book! Like, literally just finished, about ten minutes ago. The book was this one:

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch. Yes, I know, that picture is a movie poster, but it’s a movie, too! Which I didn’t realize at first, despite the copy I read being the movie release version. I just kind of assumed all the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, almost identical women on the cover were different instantiations of the protagonist, Astrid, but it turns out they are different characters. Which is actually one of my main complaints about this book. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

White Oleander is the story of Astrid Magnussen, only daughter of talented poet and murderess Ingrid Magnussen. After Ingrid is imprisoned for murdering her ex-boyfriend, Astrid gets shuffled into the foster care system, where things get predictably depressing. As Astrid matures, she builds and then sheds identities to match her different homes, all the while distancing herself from her mother’s neglectful tyranny. It’s like an inappropriately sexed-up and violent coming of age story.

Over all, White Oleander was a really enjoyable, albeit intense, read. I picked up the book from my housemate, who’s a social worker whose clients come from backgrounds much like Astrid’s. She has assured me that the disturbing aspects of the book are a lot closer to reality than the more lovely ones, which is tragic but unsurprising. The main strength of the book is in its lyrical quality–the beauty of the words often belies what they are actually saying, which is appropriate given that words are Ingrid’s chosen medium. Astrid, on the other hand, is a painter, who develops her sense of self through her evolving artwork, and her carefully plotted character arc is the main driving force of the story. Descriptions of the artwork itself are often lacking–a picture being worth a thousand words the book doesn’t have space for–but Astrid’s intentions in creating it ring through loud and clear.

That said, Astrid also sometimes rings hollow, seeming to make decisions for the sake of the plot rather than because they come naturally to her. Her personality does a complete 180 on a couple of occasions, which was baffling. Fortunately, there are only a couple times where this happens, but they stick out like a dandelions on neatly trimmed grass. It didn’t completely ruin the book, but it definitely kicked me out of the story’s momentum, which is annoying.

The bigger issue is the fact that White Oleander is set inside the California foster care system, which is 23% black and 48% Latino, and yet EVERYBODY IS WHITE. Astrid meets all of five characters of color–one black woman, Olivia, who is a high-class call girl and also her neighbor at one house; a handful of hispanic girls at another house who aren’t around long enough to distinguish themselves from one another; and, finally, a pregnant girl at her last foster home–and everybody else is white. It’s not impossible that this could happen to someone in the California foster care system, but for a work of fiction so concerned with depicting the dark underside of reality, it seems really strange to me to then white-wash an institution that is, in reality, full of underprivileged kids of color.

That said, if you’re interested in a depressing yet riveting read, White Oleander is a pretty good choice. The language alone is worth giving it a peruse for.

Poisonously yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“It’s such a liability to love another person.” –White Oleander

1 thought on “White Oleander: Review”

  1. I caught the end of the film quite a while ago and I’ve been keen to get hold of a copy of the book ever since so it’s good to hear that it is worth looking out for!

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