Wednesday, January 6, 2010

White Oleander

I love books about mothers and daughters. Sometimes I love them because I see myself and my relationship with my mum reflected in the stories and sometimes I love them because they bear absolutely no resemblance to my mum and I. Janet Fitch's White Oleander falls into the latter category, thank goodness.

White Oleander is the story of Astrid and her mother Ingrid. It is also a story about the foster care system in Los Angeles and how easy it can be to get lost in yourself.

Astrid is pretty young when the novel starts (just 12) and she is absorbed by love for her mother. Astrid is young and lovely, naive but not in that cliche, youthful way because her mother has already exposed her to a kind of iciness most girls that age wouldn't believe existed. Ingrid is and artist, aloof and unattainable and both needy and beyond emotion. The novel gets its name from the flower Ingrid uses to kill her lover, a supremely selfish act that lands her in prison and Astrid in foster care.

The first home Astrid lands in is initially alright. She has siblings for the first time and a mother who cares what she eats and how she dresses. Not that Star's version of what she should wear meshes at all with the things Ingrid has taught her. Polyester was not a word in Astrid's vocabulary before Star took her shopping. But that pseudo-mother-daughter relationship was shot the minute Star's husband Ray set his eyes on Astrid.

Ray is Astrid's introduction to sex, and the way Fitch handles a taboo and disturbing relationship is pretty incredible. Especially because she couches the affair into the larger web of Ingrid's continued influence over her daughter, expressed primarily through letters.

Of course, when Star learns about the affair she is furious. But it is not a moral outrage but a jealous one that gets Astrid ejected from that home and thrust into another one, where she mainly plays babysitter. That placement doesn't last long (Astrid is attacked by dogs one night, which leaves her visibly scared), but it does introduce Astrid to another kind of female beauty embodied by her neighbour Olivia. Olivia is warm in her beauty - a perfect counterpart for Ingrid's ice - and takes an interest in Astrid. After the attack, which also destroys the cashmere sweater Olivia gave her, Astrid is devastated that she will lose Olivia, who she is kind of in love with.

Her next home is with Claire and her husband Ron. Claire is a failed actress, but her husband has a good job and they live in a big house in a wealthy area. She has always wanted a child and almost immediately loves Astrid as though she were her daughter. Astrid, who has never experienced such soft affection, full of kind words and compliments, falls rather in love with Claire and their life together. Claire encourages Astrid's art and is almost as much as sister to her as a mother-figure.

But Ingrid is horribly jealous. She hates Claire and how weak she is. When Claire attempts suicide (an act that places Astrid back in the system), Ingrid almost crows with victory, ignoring her daughter's sorrow.

By this point, though, Astrid is fairly damaged. She stays in the group home, refusing all good families, and retreats into herself. Eventually she allows herself to be placed with Rena, a Russian woman who sells clothes at the flea market and smokes hash in the evenings. Astrid has a relationship with Rena's boyfriend and wraps herself in her shattered childhood. Ingrid is horrified, but because Astrid has never lived up to Ingrid's standards, she doesn't feel pressed to change.

Eventually, Astrid runs into Paul, a boy she met in the group home. They had been friends and his youthfulness (something she has repressed) allows her to feel things she has refused herself, such as the potential for happiness.

The relationship between Ingrid and Astrid is so well worked out that you can almost believe they are real people. Despite Ingrid's general harshness, she clearly loves her daughter and is horrified to see other people raising her and getting everything wrong. Ingrid has plans for Astrid and, although it's her own fault, it's really very sad that she has to watch her daughter get increasingly messed up as she moves from one home to another.

And the relationships between Astrid and her various foster-mothers are no less complicated. Fitch writes into each woman a past and, in only a few sharp details, creates more than an archetype of a foster parent. All the families Astrid lives with have their own motivations and are written in such a way as to suggest they continue to exist after Astrid leaves their homes.

What hits me every time I read White Oleander is how well Fitch tells a story that could easily have fallen into cliche. Even the peripheral characters stand out as having full and developed selves, as though they were created for more than their cameo appearance in Astrid's or Ingrid's life. It is a thoughtful story, and although is comprises many parts, it never once falls flat or feels contrived. And, despite being kind of a devastating story, the novel doesn't weigh you down; rather, it almost buoys you with the reminder that a happy ending isn't one-size-fits-all, and neither is the way you get there.

White Oleander
by Janet Fitch
First published in 1999 by Janet Fitch (cover image shown from Back Bay Books edition)

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