Monday, July 6, 2009

White Oleander

Janet Fitch paints a fascinating set of characters in her debut novel “White Oleander” ( 1999). Set in L.A., Fitch’s book tells the story of Astrid, a teenager who lives in a series of foster homes after her mother has been imprisoned for murder.

Astrid corresponds with letters to her mother during this time, who is a fierce and opinionated woman, managing to control her daughter despite their separation. After Astrid converts to Christianity her mother writes, “Are you out of your mind? You may not 1) be baptized, 2) call yourself Christian” In another letter she condemns Astrid for befriending a neighbor: “You will attach yourself to anyone who shows you the least bit of attention….proved (yourself) every bit as retarded as your school once claimed you were.”

Astrid encounters no small amount of trauma and strife in her experience with foster care; her first mother, Starr, shoots Astrid in the shoulder when she discovers that Astrid, at fourteen years old, is sleeping with Starr’s fifty-year-old boyfriend. Another mother, Claire, kills herself (Astrid discovers the dead body) when she thinks that her husband is having an affair and will divorce her.

In their extremity, however, Fitch’s characters are surreal and the story seems unlikely. Although Fitch is writing about something that might actually happen to a foster child, what is likelihood that Astrid would have Starr, a Jesus-freak/super-slut/alcoholic for a foster mother, only to later live with Claire, an ultra-pathetic failed actress who doesn’t work at any job, and is passive about her husbands’ affair? In addition, Astrid’s biological mother is very eccentric; an artist who Fitch has based on someone from the Heian Empire, a society based on ethics. Astrid’s mother sees her role as an artist possibly as more important that of a mother; when Astrid was a tiny girl, her mother left her with the neighborhood daycare for an entire year while she travelled and went to the beach with friends. And Astrid herself is a modern-day version of Lolita. If one of these characters had appeared in Fitch’s novel, it might be believable, but to have four (in addition to other extreme characters not mentioned here) it is too much, kind of like drinking cherry syrup straight, and not having it watered down with club soda.

Fitch paints a poetical and not often seen picture of L.A. in this novel: she uses flowing, descriptive language to describe the foliage and flowers blooming at different times of the year. And her characters are not the caricatured ultra-superficial people so often seen in books that take place in Southern California. (Consider, for example, the character of Banks in Steve Martin’s book “ShopGirl”, a middle-aged man who is so paranoid about his appearance that he won’t appear in public if he thinks that he might have been wearing the same outfit twice!). Fitch describes the neighborhood where she lives in L.A. as having a ‘different universe in every house”, and with her book has tried to captivate this, and she certainly has.

“I always know what time it is in California,” Astrid says at the end of the book, when she is living in Berlin with a boyfriend and working as an artist. With the ending, Fitch conveys how enduring fractured experiences have brought about Astrid’s wholeness and maturity. In addition, the confidence that Astrid has gained from her experiences enables her to stand up to her mother. In a closing scene, Astrid asks why her mother left her for so long in another person’s care. In her response, Fitch conveys well the oftentimes overwhelming responsibility that a child can have on a mother. “I was used to having time to think….(as a mother) I felt like a hostage.”

White Oleander became a national bestseller and also was made into a movie starring Alison Lohman and Michelle Pheiffer. In an interview, Fitch claims to be surprised by the book’s widespread appeal. And although most women certainly don’t have Astrid’s experience with foster care, perhaps in the same way that “Girl Interrupted” appealed to women who hadn’t spent time in a mental institution, any woman who has come of age in America has lived with brokenness on some level and so could empathize with the character Astrid.

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