Janet Fitch’s White Oleander is yet another book that follows one young woman’s struggle to come of age in spite of the many hardships she encounters. The literary equivalent of a chick flick, Oleander details one girl’s attempts to come to terms with her mother while also surviving the cold and largely indifferent world of foster care.The novel’s fatal flaw is that its main character and narrator, Astrid Magnussen, while being at once entertaining and tragic, behaves in such a way that the reader can never identify with her. Since the reader can never understand the narrator, the true nature of the other characters and the actions recounted by her can only be guessed.
The novel opens when Astrid is twelve. She has been raised by her single mother Ingrid, a very self-centered poet, who works at forming her daughter with the same care and detachment she uses in forming her poetry. Astrid’s life changes drastically when her mother kills an ex-boyfriend, earning herself a life in prison and sentencing her daughter to years of hopping from foster home to foster home. Astrid must learn how to survive in this new environment, according to the laws set in each home. During this time, she latches on to the few people who bother to care about her, but with each heartbreak and each physical trauma, Astrid learns to become more and more independent. Her mother keeps a constant presence throughout the novel, as Ingrid’s frequent letters continue to work at shaping her daughter.
Through all this, Astrid attempts to figure out who she is and where she came from. There is no doubt that Astrid is a very likable and precocious girl. She grew up traveling around the world, fed on poetry, and schooled by her mother’s freewheeling example. It is either because her childhood is so complex, or, more likely, evidence of poor writing, that the main character is very hard to understand. Astrid becomes anxious at times because she knows her mother has something devious planned, yet the reader isn’t really shown what clues in her mother’s behavior bring on this anxiety.
Astrid becomes a precociously sexual creature at fourteen when she seduces a man in his fifties, then turns off that sexuality as if it never existed, but the reader is never told why. The problem with White Oleander is that it asks its readers to empathize with a character they don’t particularly understand. Astrid’s mother Ingrid is even more difficult to comprehend.
She is the most selfish and uncaring maternal figure I’ve ever encountered in literature..