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White Oleander

White Oleander

4.5 587
by Janet Fitch, Oprah Winfrey (Read by)

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Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery-but their idyll is shattered when Astrid's mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is


Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery-but their idyll is shattered when Astrid's mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is sentenced to life in prison.

White Oleander is the unforgettable story of Astrid's journey through a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances. Each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned. With determination and humor, Astrid confronts the challenges of loneliness and poverty, and strives to learn who a motherless child in an indifferent world can become.

Tough, irrepressible, funny, and warm, Astrid is one of the most indelible characters in recent fiction. White Oleander is an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, burgeoning sexuality, the redemptive powers of art, and the unstoppable force of the emergent self.

Editorial Reviews

Beautifully performed by Oprah Winfrey, Janet Fitch's debut novel, White Oleander, is a stirring, poetic work of great imagination. Young Astrid is an only child with strong attachments to her brilliant if unstable mother, Ingrid, and their idyllic life together. Astrid's world is shattered, however, when Ingrid murders her lover after a devastating rejection. Her life becomes a constantly changing whirlwind of strange new faces and foster homes.
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.

Product Details

Hachette Audio
Publication date:
Edition description:
Abridged, 4 Cassettes, 6 hours
Product dimensions:
4.12(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.

"Oleander time," she said. "Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind." She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the wind trace itself through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was here, that the wind would stop blowing.

"You should get some sleep," I offered.

"I never sleep," she said.

I sat next to her, and we stared out at the city that hummed and glittered like a computer chip deep in some unknowable machine, holding its secret like a poker hand. The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.

I rested my head on her leg. She smelled like violets. "We are the wands," she said. "We strive for beauty and balance, the sensual over the sentimental."

"The wands," I repeated. I wanted her to know I was listening. Our tarot suit, the wands. She used to lay out the cards for me, explain the suits: wands and coins, cups and swords, but she had stopped reading them. She didn't want to know the future anymore.

"We received our coloring from Norsemen," she said. "Hairy savages who hacked their gods to pieces and hung the flesh from trees. We are the ones who sacked Rome. Fear only feeble old age and death in bed. Don't forget who you are."

"I promise," I said.

Down below us in the streets of Hollywood, sirens whined and sawed along my nerves. In the Santa Anas, eucalyptus trees burst into flames like giant candles, oilfat chaparral hillsides went up in a rush, flushing starved coyotes and deer down onto Franklin Avenue.

She lifted her face to the singed moon, bathing in its glowering beams. "Raven's-eye moon."

"Ritz cracker moon," I murmured, my head on her knee.

She softly stroked my hair. "It's a traitor's moon."

In the spring this wound had been unimaginable, this madness, but it had lain before us, undetectable as a land mine. We didn't even know the name Barry Kolker then.

Barry. When he appeared, he was so small. Smaller than a comma, insignificant as a cough. Someone she met at a poetry reading. It was at a wine garden in Venice. As always when she read, my mother wore white, and her hair was the color of new snow against her lightly tanned skin. She stood in the shade of a massive fig tree, its leaves like hands. I sat at the table behind stacks of books I was supposed to sell after the reading, slim books published by the Blue Shoe Press of Austin, Texas. I drew the hands of the tree and the way bees swarmed over the fallen figs, eating the sun-fermented fruit and getting drunk, trying to fly and falling back down. Her voice made me drunk — deep and sun-warmed, a hint of a foreign accent, Swedish singsong a generation removed. If you'd ever heard her, you knew the power of that hypnotic voice.

After the reading, people crowded around, gave me money to put in the cigar box, my mother signed a few books. "Ah, the writer's life," she said ironically, as they handed me the crumpled fives and ones. But she loved the readings, the way she loved long evenings with writer friends trashing more famous poets over a drink and a joint, and hated them, the way she hated the lousy job she had at Cinema Scene magazine, where she pasted up the copy of other writers paid fifty cents a word to bleed their shameless clichZs, their stock nouns and slack verbs, while my mother could agonize for hours over whether to write an or the.

As she signed her books, she wore her customary half-smile, more internal than outward, having a private joke while she thanked everybody for coming. I knew she was waiting for a certain man. I'd already seen him, a shy blond in a tank top with a bead-and-yarn necklace, who stood in the back, watching her, helpless, intoxicated. After twelve years as Ingrid's daughter, I could spot them in my sleep.

A chunky man, his dark hair pulled back in a curly ponytail, pushed in, offered his book to be signed. "Barry Kolker. Love your work," he said. She signed his book, handed it back to him, not even looking into his face. "What are you doing after the reading?"

"I have a date," she said, reaching for the next book to sign.

"After that," he said, and I liked his self-confidence, but he wasn't her type. He was chubby, dark, and dressed in what looked like a suit from the Salvation Army.

She wanted the shy blond, way younger than her, who wanted to be a poet too. Of course. He was the one who came home with us.

I lay on my mattress on the screen porch and waited for him to leave, watching the blue of the evening turn velvet, indigo lingering like an unspoken hope, while my mother and the blond man murmured on the other side of the screens. Incense perfumed the air, a special kind she bought in Little Tokyo, without any sweetness, expensive. It smelled of wood and green tea. A handful of stars appeared in the sky, but in L.A. none of the constellations were the right ones, so I connected them up in new arrangements: the Spider, the Wave, the Guitar.

When he left, I came out into the big room. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed in her white kimono, writing in a notebook with an ink pen she dipped in a bottle. "Never let a man stay the night," she told me. "Dawn has a way of casting a pall on any night magic."

The night magic, it sounded lovely. Soon I would have lovers and write a poem after. I gazed at the white oleanders she had arranged on the coffee table that morning, three blossoms representing heaven, man, and earth, and thought about the music of her lovers' voices in the darkness, their soft laughter, the smell of the incense. I touched the flowers. Heaven. Man. I felt on the verge of something, a mystery that surrounded me like gauze, something I was beginning to unwind.

All that summer, I went with her to the magazine. She never thought far enough ahead to put me in a Y program, and I never mentioned the possibility of summer school. I enjoyed school itself, but it was torture for me to try to fit in as a girl among other girls. Girls my own age were a different species entirely, their concerns as foreign as the Dogons of Mali. Seventh grade had been particularly painful, and I waited for the moment I could be with my mother again. The art room of Cinema Scene, with its ink pens and a carousel of colored pencils, table-sized paper, overlays and benday dots, border tape, and discarded headlines and photographs that I could wax and collage, was my paradise. I liked the way the adults talked around me; they forgot I was there and said the most amazing things. Today, the writers and the art director, Marlene, gossiped about the affair between the publisher and the editor of the magazine. "A bizarre bit of Santa Ana madness," my mother commented from the pasteup table. "That beaky anorexic and the toupeed Chihuahua. It's beyond grotesque. Their children wouldn't know whether to peck or bark."

They laughed. My mother was the one who would say out loud what the others were thinking.

I sat at the empty drafting table next to my mother's, drawing the way the venetian blinds sliced the light like cheese. I waited to see what my mother would say next, but she put her headphones back on, like a period at the end of a sentence. This was how she pasted up, listening to exotic music over headphones and pretending she was far away in some scented kingdom of fire and shadows, instead of sitting at a drafting table at a movie magazine pasting up actor interviews for eight dollars an hour. She concentrated on the motion of her steel X-acto knife, slicing through the galleys. She pulled up long strips that stuck to the knife. "It's their skins I'm peeling," she said. "The skins of the insipid scribblers, which I graft to the page, creating monsters of meaninglessness."

The writers laughed, uneasily.

Nobody took any note when Bob, the publisher, came in. I dropped my head and used the T square, as if I were doing something official. So far he hadn't said anything about my coming to work with my mother, but Marlene, the art director, told me to "fly low, avoid the radar." He never noticed me. Only my mother. That day he came and stood next to her stool, reading over her shoulder. That day he just wanted to stand close to her, touch her hair that was white as glacier milk, and see if he could look down her shirt. I could see the loathing on her face as he bent over her, and then, as if to steady himself, put his hand on her thigh.

She pretended to startle, and in one spare movement, cut his bare forearm with the razor-edged X-acto.

He looked down at his arm, astonished at the thread of blood that began to appear.

"Oh, Bob!" she said. "I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there. Are you all right?" But the look that she gave him with her cornflower eyes showed him she could have just as easily slit his throat.

"No problem, just a little accident." His arm bore a two-inch gash below his polo shirt sleeve. "Just an accident," he said a bit louder, as if reassuring everybody, and scuttled back to his office.

For lunch, we drove into the hills and parked in the dappled shade of a big sycamore, its powdery white bark like a woman's body against the uncanny blue sky. We ate yogurt from cartons and listened to Anne Sexton reading her own poetry on the tape deck in her scary ironic American drawl. She was reading about being in a mental home, ringing the bells. My mother stopped the tape. "Tell me the next line."

I liked it when my mother tried to teach me things, when she paid attention. So often when I was with her, she was unreachable. Whenever she turned her steep focus to me, I felt the warmth that flowers must feel when they bloom through the snow, under in the first concentrated rays of the sun.

I didn't have to grope for the answer. It was like a song, and the light filtered through the sycamore tree as crazy Anne rang her bell, B-flat, and my mother nodded.

"Always learn poems by heart," she said. "They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they'll make your soul impervious to the world's soft decay."

I imagined my soul taking in these words like silicated water in the Petrified Forest, turning my wood to patterned agate. I liked it when my mother shaped me this way. I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter's hand.

In the afternoon, the editor descended on the art room, dragging scarves of Oriental perfume that lingered in the air long after she was gone. A thin woman with overbright eyes and the nervous gestures of a frightened bird, Kit smiled too widely in her red lipstick as she darted here and there, looking at the design, examining pages, stopping to read type over my mother's shoulder, and pointing out corrections. My mother flipped her hair back, a cat twitching before it clawed you.

"All that hair," Kit said. "Isn't it dangerous in your line of work? Around the waxer and all." Her own hairstyle was geometric, dyed an inky black and shaved at the neck.

My mother ignored her, but let the X-acto fall so it impaled the desktop like a javelin.

After Kit left, my mother said to the art director, "I'm sure she'd prefer me in a crew cut. Dyed to her own bituminous shade."

"Vampire 'n' Easy," Marlene said.

I didn't look up. I knew the only reason we were here was because of me. If it weren't for me, she wouldn't have to take jobs like this. She would be half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to flamenco guitar. I felt my guilt like a brand.

That night she went out by herself. I drew for an hour, ate a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, then drifted next door to Michael's, knocked on the hollow door. Three bolts fell back. "It's Queen Christina." He smiled, a gentle soft man about my mother's age, but puffy and pale from drinking and being inside all the time. He cleared a pile of dirty clothes and Variety from the couch so I could sit down.

The apartment was very different from ours, crammed with furniture and souvenirs and movie posters, Variety and newspapers and empty wine bottles, tomato plants straggling on the windowsills, groping for a little light. It was dark even in the daytime, because it faced north, but it had a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign, the reason he took it in the first place.

"Snow again," he said along with Garbo, tilting his face up like hers. "Eternal snow." He handed me a bowl of sunflower seeds. "I am Garbo."

I cracked seeds in my teeth and flicked off the rubber sandals I'd been wearing since April. I couldn't tell my mother I'd outgrown my shoes again. I didn't want to remind her that I was the reason she was trapped in electric bills and kid's shoes grown too small, the reason she was clawing at the windows like Michael's dying tomatoes. She was a beautiful woman dragging a crippled foot and I was that foot. I was bricks sewn into the hem of her clothes, I was a steel dress.

"What are you reading these days?" I asked Michael. He was an actor, but he didn't work that much, and he wouldn't do TV, so he made most of his money reading for Books on Tape. He had to do it under a pseudonym, Wolfram Malevich, because it was nonunion. We could hear him every morning, very early, through the wall. He knew German and Russian from the army, he'd been in army intelligence — an oxymoron, he always said — so they put him on German and Russian authors.

"Chekhov short stories." He leaned forward and handed me the book from the coffee table. It was full of notes and Post-its and underlines.

I leafed through the book. "My mother hates Chekhov. She says anybody who ever read him knows why there had to be a revolution."

"Your mother." Michael smiled. "Actually, you might really like him. There's a lovely melancholy in Chekhov." We both turned to the TV to catch the best line in Queen Christina, saying along with Garbo, "The snow is like a white sea, one could go out and be lost in it . . . and forget the world."

I thought of my mother as Queen Christina, cool and sad, eyes trained on some distant horizon. That was where she belonged, in furs and palaces of rare treasures, fireplaces large enough to roast a reindeer, ships of Swedish maple. My deepest fear was that someday she would find her way back there and never return. It was why I always waited up when she went out on nights like this, no matter how late she came home, I had to hear her key in the lock, smell her violet perfume again.

And I tried not to make it worse by asking for things, pulling her down with my thoughts. I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. Didn't they know they were tying their mothers to the ground? Weren't chains ashamed of their prisoners?

But how I envied the way their mothers sat on their beds and asked what they were thinking. My mother was not in the least bit curious about me. I often wondered what she thought I was, a dog she could tie in front of the store, a parrot on her shoulder?

I never told her that I wished I had a father, that I wanted to go to camp in summertime, that sometimes she scared me. I was afraid she would fly away, and I would end up alone, living in some place where there were too many children, too many smells, where beauty and silence and the intoxication of her words rising in air would be as far away as Saturn.

Out the window, the glow of the Hollywood sign was slightly blurred with June fog, a soft wetness on the hills raising the smell of sage and chemise, moisture wiping the glass with dreams.

She came home at two when the bars closed, alone, her restlessness satisfied for the moment. I sat on her bed, watched her change clothes, adoring each gesture. Someday I would do this, the way she crossed her arms and pulled her dress over her head, kicked off her high heels. I put them on, admiring them on my feet. They were almost the right size. In another year or so, they would fit. She sat down next to me, handed me her brush, and I brushed her pale hair smooth, painting the air with her violets. "I saw the goat man again," she said.

"What goat man?"

"From the wine garden, remember? The grinning Pan, cloven hooves peeping out from under his pants?"

I could see the two of us in the round mirror on the wall, our long hair down, our blue eyes. Norsewomen. When I saw us like this, I could almost remember fishing in cold deep seas, the smell of cod, the charcoal of our fires, our felt boots and our strange alphabet, runes like sticks, a language like the ploughing of fields.

"He stared at me the entire time," she said. "Barry Kolker. Marlene says he's a writer of personal essays." Her fine lips turned into long commas of disapproval. "He was with that actress from The Cactus Garden, Jill Lewis."

Her white hair, like unbleached silk, flowed through the boar bristle brush.

"With that fat goat of a man. Can you imagine?" I knew she couldn't. Beauty was my mother's law, her religion. You could do anything you wanted, as long as you were beautiful, as long as you did things beautifully. If you weren't, you just didn't exist. She had drummed it into my head since I was small. Although I had noticed by now that reality didn't always conform to my mother's ideas.

"Maybe she likes him," I said.

"She must be insane," my mother said, taking the brush away from me and brushing my hair now, bearing down on the scalp hard. "She could have any man she wanted. What could she possibly be thinking?"

She saw him again at her favorite artists' bar downtown with no sign by the tracks. She saw him at a party in Silverlake. Wherever she went, she complained, there he was, the goat man.

I thought it was only coincidence, but one night at a performance space in Santa Monica where we went to watch one of her friends beating on Sparkletts bottles and ranting about the drought, I saw him too, four rows back. He spent the whole time trying to catch her eye. He waved at me and I waved back, low, so she wouldn't see.

After it was over, I wanted to talk to him, but she dragged me out fast. "Don't encourage him," she hissed.

When he turned up at the annual publication party for Cinema Scene, I had to agree that he was following her. It was outside in the courtyard of an old hotel on the Strip. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate. The women wore bare dresses, my mother like a moth in white silk. I threaded my way through the crowd to the hors d'oeuvres table, quickly loaded my purse with things I thought could stand a few hours unrefrigerated — crab claws and asparagus spears, liver in bacon — and there was Barry, piling a plate with shrimp. He saw me, and his eyes immediately swept the crowd for my mother. She was behind me, drinking white wine, gossiping with Miles, the photo editor, a gaunt, stubble-chinned Englishman whose fingers were stained with nicotine. She hadn't seen Barry yet. He started through the crowd toward her. I was close behind him.

"Ingrid," Barry said, penetrating her circle of two. "I've been looking for you." He smiled. Her eyes flicked cruelly over his mustard-colored tie hanging to one side, his brown shirt pulling at the buttons over his stomach, his uneven teeth, the shrimp in his chubby fist. I could hear the icy winds of Sweden, but he didn't seem to feel the chill.

"I've been thinking about you," he said, coming even closer.

"I'd rather you wouldn't," she said.

"You'll change your mind about me," he said. He put his finger alongside his nose, winked at me, and walked on to another group of people, put his arm around a pretty girl, kissed her neck. My mother turned away. That kiss went against everything she believed. In her universe, it simply did not happen.

"You know Barry?" Miles asked.

"Who?" my mother said.

That night, she couldn't sleep. We went down to the apartment pool and swam slow quiet laps under the local stars, the Crab Claw, the Giant Shrimp.

My mother bent over her drafting table, cutting type without a ruler in long elegant strokes. "This is Zen," she said. "No flaw, no moment's hesitation. A window onto grace." She looked genuinely happy. It sometimes happened when she was pasting up just right, she forgot where she was, why she was there, where she'd been and would rather be, forgot about everything but the gift of cutting a perfectly straight freehand line, a pleasure as pure as when she'd just written a beautiful phrase.

But then I saw what she didn't see, the goat man enter the production room. I didn't want to be the one to ruin her moment of grace, so I kept making my Chinese tree out of benday dots and wrong-sized photo stills from Salaam Bombay! When I glanced up, he caught my eye and put his finger to his lips, crept up behind her and tapped her shoulder. Her knife went slicing through the type. She whirled around and I thought she was going to cut his liver out, but he showed her something that stopped her, a small envelope he put on her table.

"For you and your daughter," he said.

She opened it, removed two tickets, blue-and-white. Her silence as she examined them astonished me. She stared at them, then him, jabbing the sharp end of her X-acto into the rubbery surface of the desk, a dart that stuck there for a moment before she pulled it out.

"Just the concert," she said. "No dinner, no dancing."

"Agreed," he said, but I could see he really didn't believe her. He didn't know her yet.

It was a gamelan concert at the art museum. Now I knew why she accepted. I only wondered how he knew exactly the right thing to propose, the one thing she would never turn down. Had he hidden in the oleanders outside our apartment? Interviewed her friends? Bribed somebody?

The night crackled as my mother and I waited for him in the forecourt of the museum. Everything had turned to static electricity in the heat. I combed my hair to watch the sparks fly from the ends.

Forced to wait, my mother made small, jerky movements with her arms, her hands. "Late. How despicable. I should have known. He's probably off rutting in some field with the other goats. Remind me never to make plans with quadrupeds."

She still had on her work clothes, though she'd had time to change. It was a sign, to indicate to him that it wasn't a real date, that it meant nothing. All around us, women in bright summer silks and a shifting bouquet of expensive perfumes eyed her critically. Men admired her, smiled, stared. She stared back, blue eyes burning, until they grew awkward and turned away.

"Men," she said. "No matter how unappealing, each of them imagines he is somehow worthy."

I saw Barry across the plaza, his bulk jolting on his short legs. He grinned, flashing the gap between his teeth. "Sorry, but traffic was murder."

My mother turned away from the apology. Only peons made excuses for themselves, she taught me. Never apologize, never explain.

The gamelan orchestra was twenty small slim men kneeling before elaborately carved sets of chimes and gongs and drums. The drum began, joined by one of the lower sets of chimes. Then more entered the growing mass of sound. Rhythms began to emerge, expand, complex as lianas. My mother said the gamelan created in the listener a brain wave beyond all alphas and betas and thetas, a brain wave that paralyzed the normal channels of thought and forced new ones to grow outside them, in the untouched regions of the mind, like parallel blood vessels that form to accommodate a damaged heart.

I closed my eyes to watch tiny dancers like jeweled birds cross the dark screen of my eyelids. They took me away, spoke to me in languages that had no words for strange mothers with ice-blue eyes and apartments with ugly sparkles on the front and dead leaves in the pool.

Afterward, the audience folded its plush velvet chairs and pressed to the exits, but my mother didn't move. She sat in her chair, her eyes closed. She liked to be the last one to leave. She despised crowds, and their opinions as they left a performance, or worse, discussed the wait for the bathroom or where do you want to eat? It spoiled her mood. She was still in that other world, she would stay there as long as she possibly could, the parallel channels twining and tunneling through her cortex like coral.

"It's over," Barry said.

She raised her hand for him to be quiet. He looked at me and I shrugged. I was used to it. We waited until the last sound had faded from the auditorium. Finally she opened her eyes.

"So, you want to grab a bite to eat?" he asked her.

"I never eat," she said.

I was hungry, but once my mother took a position, she never wavered from it. We went home, where I ate tuna out of a can while she wrote a poem using the rhythms of the gamelan, about shadow puppets and the gods of chance.

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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White Oleander 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 587 reviews.
XXXOOOBookwormOOOXXX More than 1 year ago
I never believed that a book could truly take hold of your emotions and exhilerate your senses, but this story drew me into the folds of surprise, heartbreak, and amazing prose. The story is told from Astrid Magnussen's point of view. She is a young girl (story goes from age 12-18), who lives with her mother, Ingrid, who is a smooth, freeminded poet. They live in an apartment in Hollywood, California. They go to museums, read books by Dmitry and Dostoyevsky, and do poetry readings. Ingrid uses her charm to lure in men and have carefree relationships, but she gets too serious in one of these relationships. After the man breaks it off with Ingrid, she kills him. She is then put into prison and sentenced for life. So begins Astrid's life of foster care and life altering changes. Throughout the story, Astrid is at 6 different homes, including a children's center. Each home is filled with people and experiences that all take their toll on Astrid and her upbringing. These include: getting involved with a MUCH older man, gun shot wounds, starvation, and a death, to name a few. During her time at these homes, she corresponds with her mother with letters, in which Ingrid is still trying to shape her daughter...even through prison. Astrid soon realizes that her mother wants her to remain unhappy in these homes, so she will still be "needed" by her daughter, and so that she can still influence Astrid into becoming like her. This is a book where you hope and plead for a good ending, but you're never sure if it will happen or not. This books is remarkable. You'll be mesmerized by Astrid Magnussen adventures. The characters are astonishingly well drawn and practically leap off the page. The writing is a work of art in itself. The plot takes you on a tour through the darkest depths of the human experience and still manages to leave you with a glimmer of hope at the end. A must read book if ever there was one! This book captures the difficulties of "broken families" and the struggle of trying to make your way in the world when you start off at a disadvantage. The languages and images are beautiful and will stay with you. It's one girl's story, but this is one of those books that gives voice to hard truths.
MaggieMcKickButt More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing! It was so much better than the movie! Compared to the book, the movie was absolutely horrible. The characters were pretty much the same. I loved Astrid's strength and bravery throughout the entire book. Even though her mother and other people kept putting her down, she got through it. I felt like I was Astrid the entire book and it made me sad and a little depressed. I wish things like what Astrid went through never happen. It's just not fair.
LizabeeAK More than 1 year ago
This book is not just about a mother and a daughter, nor is it a catalogue of foster care atrocities. It is the journey of a girl, Astrid, as she discovers that it is possible to remember, as well as to move on; to be able to understand hate, as well as love. Reads like a mix of poetry and journalism. I won't forget it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read this book about 7 times. It is an amazing book. Don't judge the book by the movie, the movie was terrible.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read this book once, liked it. Reread it, adored it. now after at least reading it 5 times, i cherish it. The prose reads more like poetry, drawing up as much emotion as a movie. Just beautiful. Highly reccomended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After several months of books that none of us liked, this was a unanimous winner among our members, creating a great deal of lively discussion. Ceratinly, all of us had thoughts on our own parentage after reading this book, and lacking though we may have found some of our own experiences, they certainly paled by comparison to those of the main character! Other topics discussed- what makes one a surivvor in this world ( and what percentage of the world are true survivors?); the dichotomy of surface beauty vs. intrinsic (or internal) evil; the stages of life awareness experienced by the main character in each of her foster homes; the psychology of each foster mom (or foster situation), and what goodness/pathology/life lessons, etc, could be gleaned from each The list goes on- there were more potential discussions than we had time for over dinner!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Janet Fitch is so much more than a poet. This book is full of many sad truths. I read it often...to remind me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very much in the line of Little Alters Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood. Damaged daughters, controlling, mentally ill mothers. And how much we need our mothers even when they destroy our lives. I doubt that I will re-read this book, but I'm glad I read it once.
tippiJN More than 1 year ago
I just picked this book up from B&N. I love the style of writing. Great book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book was in 11th grade. It is amazing. Never gets old or boring. It is such a gripping and moving piece of literature. You will cry. You will laugh. You will be shocked. This book is so well written. The characters are very well developed. This book never lags or disappoints. Experiencing this will be one of the best decisions you can make.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, heart breaking story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was like a roller coaster for me, there were times when i struggled to stay interested and then other times when i couldnt put it down. Im only giving it a 2 star because even though the characters were developed sometimes the scenes were not as believable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I honestly love this book. Its amazing, a must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book, continues to be one of my favorites. A truley enjoyable read, I couldn't put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved ever bit of it!!!!
WWrunner More than 1 year ago
The story is phenominal. The feelings felt real. The characters felt true. And I was hooked pretty much throughout the book. However, I just found it difficult to finish the last 50+ pages or so. I guess I just wished for a different ending. But ultimately, I would read another Oprah's Book Club recommendation.
Awesomeness1 More than 1 year ago
This beautifully crafted novel has a cast of realistic characters you won't soon forget. The wrtiting is pleasant and absorbing. The novel will take you in and make you feel emotion on every page. I whole-heartedly reccomend this!
anavidreaderWY More than 1 year ago
This book leaves an impression. I read it in a day,and thought about it for days after. This is one of the really great books!
SkyeCaitlin 9 months ago
Exquisite, provocative, melodious novel spun by author Janet Fitch, artistic with the English language. White Oleander is an epoch/pastoral poem in the guise of a novel, a Romantic's dream, a Metaphysical masterpiece and yet underneath the beauty of language lies a gritty, edgy story of pain, lost hope, longing, desire and need; it is a journey of redemption often meeting with despair, broken glass and scars; it is a voyage of self-discovery and quintessential decisions that leave the reader unsettled and filled with hope as well as fear. It is hauntingly amazing like a beautiful sunset and manipulates the reader's conscience while penetrating and seducing all five senses.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this novel more than 10 years ago as a recommendation from a friend. This story is I e that will last with you and make you question life with great perspective. It's a little bit haunting as well. I loved it and when I read years ago it was the first of its kind for me. I still have the same copy sharing space with other great novels in my home library. It's definitely worth a read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read this book twice. One of the best books i have ever read. Anyone I have recommended it to also agrees. Curl up with it and lose yourself in this amazing story. Am getting ready to read Paint it Black by the same author.
Skidrow82 More than 1 year ago
I haven't read the book but I saw the film and I found it incredibly emotional. The characters, the situations, the performances, Thomas Newman's heartbreaking music... I don't know whether to buy the book, since the movie was so strong for me. I even had nightmares about it...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My mom once told me that "Atlas Shrugged" had been the one book out of all she read that had affected her a certain way. I never understood what she meant, until now. I love reading, and I take away something from every book, but this book....I can't describe it. It was amazing and sad and triumphant in some places, but most of all, it feels REAL. This book is full of emotion, but it's not saccharine or fake. You feel like your taking the journey with Astrid, and struggling to understand her life with her. I wish I could explain the emotion behind this book better, but I don't have the words. Multiple readings help me understand Astrid more each time, I just know that when I read it for the first time, I felt some kind of understanding that I still can't figure out. This book remains the one book that will always speak to me in some way.
osaka More than 1 year ago
Excellent! Hard to believe this was a debut novel for the author. Couldn't put this book down, I was drawn to the characters. Very interesting story.