White Oleander – Janet Fitch

White Oleander

                I took a risk back in college with this book and picked it for my thesis without even having read it. My teacher, fortunately, trusted me and agreed to this choice, though he had no idea what the book was about. Luckily, I never regretted this choice; don’t know about my teacher, though.  picked it. It was one of the very few books I first read in English, and a few years later I read the Polish translation – which sucked, by the way. On the other hand, I guess it’s not an easy book to translate, if you want to give it the atmosphere of the original.

                The story is about Astrid and her mother Ingrid. They are both beautiful, each in their own way. Ingrid, a poet, brings Astrid up in an unconventional way, teaches her to be strong and independent and not to rely on anyone but herself. They move a lot, so Astrid doesn’t have any close friends. Her father is also a big question mark, for Ingrid never tells about him. All changes when Ingrid falls in love, gets cheated on and kills her former lover. She goes to prison, and her daughter – to foster care system.

                Most of the novel is Astrid’s journey through various foster homes; but also about her growing up and her relationship with Ingrid, who has a great impact on her daughter even from behind the bars. Astrid seems to have the worst luck of foster families available in the States, though. Ranging from over-religious fanatic through woman who was starving her fosters to a suicidal, mentally unstable actress.

                When I was reading it, I was also writing my own novel about foster care, and it made me ashamed at that time that I made my character… well, a little too normal for foster care, especially compared to Astrid. Now, older and hopefully a little wiser, I see that White Oleander was a little too melodramatic and too much or horrible things happened to just one person for it to be realistic. Yet, I list this book as one of my favorites. Why? Here it goes:

                White Oleander is not an easy read, it’s also really sad and complicated. It is, however, interesting and emotional – two of the most important things for me in a book. These two alone won’t make it worth reading, though. What makes it special is the writing itself; poetic, very descriptive, with some great metaphors. The whole book is for me a praise for words and for beauty, it’s almost magical. Some of the phrases – like “Loneliness is a human condition” – open up something deep inside of me, some kind of a raw sadness. For sure it’s not a book I could read at any given moment, I have to be in a special mood for it.

                Plus, no matter how cruel she was, I loved most of Ingrid’s “life advice” that she gave in her letters to Astrid!

                At the end I should probably mention that it was in Oprah’s selection. I don’t think I’ve ever even watched Oprah; and even if I read more of the books from her “book club” or whatever it was, I wouldn’t be aware of it. So I can’t honestly comment on this fact. It just was there; whether it’s a negative or a positive fact – you decide.

                Overall, I would recommend the novel. It uses great language – it taught me a few words and some patience while reading it – and it simply is a beautiful prose. Also, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t say this – I loved the little reference to Zodiac Signs in the middle of the book!  

PS White Oleander is one of the few movies I made a tribute for – back in the days when I had more time for it:


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