White Oleander
  • White Oleander
  • White Oleander

White Oleander

4.5 584
by Janet Fitch

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Everywhere hailed as a novel of rare beauty and power, White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid, whose odyssey through a series of Los Angeles foster homes-each its own universe, with its own laws, its own dangers, its own hard lessons to be learned-becomes a redeeming and surprising

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Everywhere hailed as a novel of rare beauty and power, White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid, whose odyssey through a series of Los Angeles foster homes-each its own universe, with its own laws, its own dangers, its own hard lessons to be learned-becomes a redeeming and surprising journey of self-discovery.

Editorial Reviews

When her passionate poet mother, Ingrid, is jailed for killing her ex-lover (with poison brewed partly from white oleander flowers), Astrid Magnussen navigates her way to adulthood through a series of Los Angeles foster families and juevenile homes. Astrid's strength and resilience makes this compelling novel an inspiration.
Judith Kicinski
This novel will surely be hailed as one of the best novels of the year and is likely the best debut this reviewer has ever read. When beautiful, egotistical poet Ingrid murders the lover who dumped her, 12-year-old daughter Astrid descends into the hells of foster care, where she is sustained only by a fierce intelligence and great artistic talent.

Heartbreaking, but without a trace of sentimentality, this novel provokes the amazement that children like Astrid can emerge whole and capable after what we know are even worse childhoods than hers.
Library Journal

Trish Deitch Rohrer

In Janet Fitch's first novel, White Oleander, Astrid Magnussen, a pliant 11-year-old, loses Ingrid, her mother -- an arrogant feminist poet from Los Angeles -- when the woman gets thrown in prison for poisoning her ex-boyfriend. By the time Astrid is 18, she is hard from years of San Fernando Valley foster care: from being shot by one "mother" for stealing her seven-fingered boyfriend, from being mauled by dogs on a suburban street, from being dropped by a high-class black hooker who's taught her about the rewards of cashmere and the weaknesses of men, from being forced into servitude by a racist blue-collar hag interested only in the bottled color of her own hair, from losing the one cultured and nurturing female in her teenage life to suicide. Despite her hardness, though, Astrid -- who narrates this episodic drama -- views her life always with openness and mostly with gratitude: Had her birth mother been the only woman to raise her, she would never have learned about the varieties of women and the myriad ways they suffer.

At the center of White Oleander is Astrid's ever-evolving relationship with Ingrid, pursued, for the most part, through the mail. At first the girl, more visually than verbally articulate, sends her mother drawings of the people looking after her, and Ingrid responds with sound warnings against the drug addicts and drunks she finds on the pages in front of her. After a while, though, as her daughter grows to love these women, the less than maternal inmate, angry and jealous, turns away from her and toward a growing audience of young female readers in love with the figure of the captive poet. And so Astrid suffers a double loss, emotional as well as physical. This is where Fitch does her best work: She shows that children can survive gunshot wounds, dog attacks, poverty, fatherlessness and even neglect, but that losing the love of a mother threatens them with losing themselves.

It's hard to know whether the author means for her narrator to be unreliable or not. What are we supposed to think about a young woman who continues to look back with fondness on the many horrors of her childhood? Are we supposed to feel uplifted because, in spite of all the scars, she still has a heart? White Oleander has the feel of a book written over years in a workshop setting: Though the story doesn't quite add up -- though it remains linear and rather simple-minded -- you can appreciate the author's hard work and determination and the love of the community of women she weaves through the sentences. On occasion the book is a page-turner (it's amazing how compelling a child's misery can be), and always the characters are as real as the person who sleeps beside you. In the case of White Oleander, though, they always leave. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly
Thirteen-year-old Astrid Magnussen, the sensitive and heart-wrenching narrator of this impressive debut, is burdened with an impossible mother in Ingrid, a beautiful, gifted poet whose scattered life is governed by an enormous ego. When Ingrid goes to prison for murdering her ex-lover, Astrid enters the Los Angeles foster care program and is placed with a series of brilliantly characterized families. Astrid's first home is with Starr, a born-again former druggie, whose boyfriend, middle-aged Ray, encourages Astrid to paint (Astrid's absent father is an artist) and soon becomes her first lover, but who disappears when Starr's jealousy becomes violent. Astrid finds herself next at the mercy of a new, tyrannical foster mom, Marvel Turlock, who grows wrathful at the girl's envy of a sympathetic next-door prostitute's luxurious life. "Never hope to find people who will understand you," Ingrid archly advises as her daughter's Dickensian descent continues in the household of sadistic Amelia Ramos, where Astrid is reduced to pilfering food from garbage cans. Then she's off to the dream home of childless yuppies Claire and Ron Richards, who shower her with gifts, art lessons and the warmth she's been craving. But this new development piques Ingrid's jealousy, and Astrid, now 17 and a high school senior, falls into the clutches of the entrepreneurial Rena Grushenka. Amid Rena's flea-market wares, Astrid learns to fabricate junk art and blossoms as a sculptor. Meanwhile, Ingrid, poet-in-prison, becomes a feminist icon who now has a chance at freedom — if Astrid will agree to testify untruthfully at the trial. Astrid's difficult choice yields unexpected truths about her hidden past, and propels her already epic story forward, with genuinely surprising and wrenching twists. Fitch is a splendid stylist; her prose is graceful and witty; the dialogue, especially Astrid's distinctive utterances and loopy adages, has a seductive pull. This sensitive exploration of the mother-daughter terrain (sure to be compared to Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here) offers a convincing look at what Adrienne Rich has called "this womanly splitting of self," in a poignant, virtuosic, utterly captivating narrative.
This is a fierce, mesmerizing tale of a horrific coming-of-age, and of a power struggle between mother and daughter, which is sure to entrance older YAs. Astrid, the novel's teenage protagonist, wryly describes her religion as "survivalist," and it's easy to understand why. She is the daughter of Ingrid, a talented poet who is as beautiful—and deadly—as the white oleander plant of the title. As the story opens, Astrid is 12, and she has spent her life so far in her mother's shadow, traipsing around the world as Ingrid single-mindedly and selfishly does as she pleases, seeking beauty and pleasure. They are living in Los Angeles when Ingrid falls in love with a man named Barry who eventually rejects her; she becomes obsessed with getting revenge and kills him with poison. Ingrid is sent to jail, and Astrid is shipped off to a series of foster homes in the area. As in Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster, we get an inside view of what it's really like to be a foster child. At the first home, a trailer house, Astrid is so lonely and desperate for a father that she seduces her foster mother's boyfriend; in retaliation the foster mother shoots Astrid. At the next foster home, Astrid is treated like slave labor and befriends the glamorous black prostitute next door, for which crime she is expelled. At the next place, the fridge is kept locked and Astrid is reduced to scavenging garbage cans for food. When lovely and loving but emotionally fragile Claire then takes her in, Astrid feels as if she has landed in heaven, which makes it that much harder on Astrid when Claire commits suicide. After a stint in a tough children's center, a materialistic Russian woman named Rena then takes Astrid in,teaching her how to pick through trash for what can be sold, to drink vodka with Gatorade, to live in the moment and never think about the past or the future. But Astrid can't help being obsessed with her past, and with her mother, whom she has corresponded with and visited occasionally over the six years of her incarceration. "I am your home," her mother repeats to her, and in many ways this is true: Astrid both hates her and craves her. She eventually learns some startling truths about her past, and about the depth of her mother's love for her, but when Ingrid wins her freedom from jail, Astrid has finally managed to break free of her shadow. She has made a new life for herself as an artist in Europe, making "personal museums" of the people in her past and living with a boy she met at the children's center, though she knows her mother will always haunt her thoughts. This is a riveting story, and brave Astrid and monstrous Ingrid are unforgettable characters. Scarred inside and out, Astrid nevertheless eventually finds herself, learning from her awful experiences important lessons about "sex, money, love, independence, courage, rage and the manifold ways of becoming a woman," as Fitch puts it in an interview included as part of the reading guide at the end of this edition of the book. It's a powerful tale, filled with wonderful language (some of it profane, along with sexual scenes and drug use), and reading it is like falling into a fevered dream. For mature teens. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Little Brown/Back Bay, 446p, 21cm, 98-50371, $13.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
Library Journal
Fitch's startling debut novel is a raw and sorrow-filled exploration of the adolescence of the only child of a brilliant, selfish, and totally egocentric poet who was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her lover. Etched with great suffering and amazing survival, White Oleander follows Astrid's torturous path from foster home to foster home, haunted by her mother's letters from jail and reflected in her own artistic vision. Alyssa Bresnahan fully inhabits the challenging and lyrical narrative through the voices of both daughter and mother, capturing the listener's full attention and heart as it becomes difficult to put aside and even harder to forget. An Oprah Book Club selection, the novel has a guaranteed popularity it richly deserves, and this audio version will win additional readers because of the perfect combination of this powerful story and characters with the skillful reading. Highly recommended.--Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
....[Fitch's] startlingly apt language relates a story that is both intelligent and gripping.
The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
...Ms. Fitch is...concerned with the ghostlike role that the ferocious Ingrid plays in her daughter's memory once she has left for prison....What keeps White Oleander from devolving into a television mini-series is Ms. Fitch's aptitude for delineating Astrid's inner life....The...novel is frequently obvious and over the top but at the same time oddly haunting.
The New York Times
Alexandra Lange
...[A] loosely stitched-together series of these worst nightmares: a mother who starves her young, a high-class prostitute, a suicidal fading actress, a tough-talking Russian flea-market hustler...Fitch's writing has trippy, visceral power, but the reader remains unconvinced that she hasn't just written this as an exercise in high-brow shock lit—A.M. Homes Lite.
New York Magazine
Janet Fitch
The title flower triggers a savage turn of events when the poet Ingrid Magnussen poisons her lover, consigning herself to a jail life and her 12-year-old daughter to Los Angeles' foster-care system. Young Astrid gets off to a shaky start at the home of a born-again Christian who shoots her in a fit of righteous jealousy. She survives that, though, as well as prison notes from her mother, which include sentiments like this: "Sometimes I wish you were dead, so I would know safe." Fitch tends to get lost in the lyricism of her prose, but there are satisfying moments of clarity in this ambitious debut novel.
Kirkus Reviews
A first-rate debut about a teenaged girl's arduous six-year journey of self-discovery.

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Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Oprah's Book Club Series
Edition description:
Media Tie
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Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

What People are saying about this

Robert Olen Butler
Janet Fitch writes with breathtaking beauty about the central theme of our age: the search for self. White Oleander is a remarkable debut novel.
— (Robert Olen Butler, Author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain)
Elizabeth Berg
This is what you're after when you're browsing the shelves for something GOOD to read. White Oleander is a siren song of a novel, seducing the reader with its story, language, and, perhaps most of all, with its utterly believable (and remarkably diverse!) characters. The narrator is particularly memorable — there were times she made me want to cheer and weep simultaneously. Finishing this book made me feel gratefully bereft, and I look forward to Janet Fitch's next work.
— (Elizabeth Berg, Author of Durable Goods and Range of Motion)

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