Dive in. Swim around for a while in Fitch’s smooth, clear, style of writing. I found myself submerged in White Oleander for hours at a time, without the desire to come up for air. It flows like water. Few other books even come close to how well this book moves.
You may have seen the movie that was based on this book that came out several years ago. Read the book anyway. There are stories within the pages that the movie never even hinted at. Books are generally better than the movies based upon them, anyway, and this rule holds true for White Oleander.
The book gets its title from the choice of flower that Ingrid (a famous poet and powerful woman) uses in an attempt to poison her ex-lover. She fails, but does eventually kill him, which leads her to prison. Her daughter, Astrid, becomes a ward of the state. Astrid is about twelve years old when this occurs. The book follows Astrid as she moves from place to place, growing, learning, and changing.
Astrid is trying to find herself. After a lifetime of identifying herself mostly as “Ingrid’s daughter”, she now has no choice but to become someone else. She finds herself changing based upon the lifestyles and ideologies of the series of women who take her in and care for her, and she is also influenced by the earth itself, and the different landscapes and surrounding nature each foster home is located in.
Each woman has her own reason for deciding to take in Astrid, most of which boil down to simple selfishness. Astrid becomes a different Astrid in each new place.
Sometimes she is doing things she thinks will please her mother, but often, she does the very thing that she suspects her mother will most disapprove of. Astrid’s choices and circumstances tend to lead towards disaster, but are still valuable experiences in their own right.
No matter where Astrid ends up, no matter how influential the other women in her life are, she finds she cannot break the strong ties that she and her mother have. Despite Ingrid being someone Astrid hardly ever sees, despite Ingrid’s insanity, and despite her vitriolic and sporadic letters, Astrid can’t let go enough to move on with her own life.
Astrid is facing what we all go through, eventually, which is the drama of growing up, leaving home, and become your own person. It’s never easy. Astrid faces a greater challenge, because she has no safety net of familiarity to catch her when she falls while exploring this new terrain. Each new foster home tells it’s own little mini drama within the confines of the larger story.
Astrid survives, despite her challenges, or perhaps because of them. By the end, she is her mother’s daughter, for good or for evil. This book is heartbreakingly beautiful, and one I will read again.