"Oleander time" is a time when white oleanders blossom and "lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind".
Janet Fitch describes the Santa Ana blossoms as desert survivalists as "delicate poisonous blooms" with "dagger green leaves". Throughout this novel the words sing a poetic duet with the reader and, from her opening description, I was humming along.
I felt a bit like a Peeping Tom as I spied on Fitch's fictional prose about the early years of Astrid Magnussen. From the beginning, I realized that the relationship between Astrid and her poet mother was unique, if not absurd.
Astrid's search for love and affection from a parental figure deepens as she gets caught in the foster care system after her mother is scorned by a man, murders him, and is thrown in jail. Astrid feels responsible for her mother's actions and this man's death. "My responsibility. My infection," she says. In fact, she feels responsible for every bad thing that happens to her and the people she chooses to love.
This journey of an insecure and extremely talented young girl whose fear of losing her mother and being unloved drives her into relationships destined to fail, is heart wrenching. Bad things seem to follow Astrid wherever she goes. When she labels herself, "Nobody's Child" my heart fell and I wished I could reach out to help and protect her. In reality, she doesn’t need it and if it was offered she would probably refuse.
Astrid is strong, in spite of her obsessive love for her mother and the pseudo-replacements she finds at each of the foster homes she's sent to. Ray, the boyfriend of her first foster mother, is Astrid's first obsession. During this relationship, I had to keep reminding myself she was a child and not a woman. Her other obsessions include a prostitute and a paranoid/obsessive has-been actress. The detailed characters are marvellous.
Fitch has painted Astrid and Ingrid perfectly. I felt for Astrid as she flip-flopped through her love and hate for her poetic angel, her conniving bitch of a mother. Ingrid, the beautiful, pale goddess has a demonic quality to her. She would rather her daughter live a violent, disdainful life than to have her live one of reasonable happiness. Ingrid's magnetic personality fascinates all who are susceptible to her black widow qualities. Throughout the book I felt a great hatred for this woman but at the same time a sense of curiosity; is there more to who she is? By the end of the book, this was answered. Astrid is definitely the adult in this dysfunctional family and she is wiser and stronger because of her mother.
Fitch's use of abundant similes was somewhat distracting at first but once I got over my personal biases I quite enjoyed them. I also liked the Goddess references used throughout, specifically, Astrid's comparison of herself to Persephone when she was taken away for the first time by the social workers, "How it was that the earth could open up under you and swallow you whole, close above you as if you never were. Like Persephone snatched by the god. The ground opened up and out he came sweeping her into the black chariot. Then down they plunged, under the ground into darkness, and the earth closed over her head and she was gone, as if she had never been." This definitely sets the tone for the darkness that follows.
Fitch successfully shows the suffering that humans can inflict on themselves and those they claim to love. She transmits the possibility that we can outgrow ourselves and that we have a choice in the person we become despite how our past has shaped our psyche. Simply, this is the journey and survival through one woman's childhood and what she gained from the experience.
Overall, White Oleander is enjoyable and the suspense and terror of Astrid's travels through the foster care system are engaging, often alarming and hold interest, if only to find out what else could possible happen to this poor child. If nothing else, you put down this book knowing that your life isn't as bad as you thought and you can deal with whatever it dishes you. Women persevering, I can see why it was an Oprah pick.
Virago Press, 1999
Purchase White Oleander from Amazon.com.
Purchase White Oleander from Amazon.ca.
M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario, Canada. If you are going to find this eclectic reader and writer anywhere it is probably at her computer. For more information visit her official website.