White Oleander – A coming of age novel

The sad, complex and lonely life of Astrid Magnussen is examined in this debut novel by Janet Fitch.

Adrienne Raczki reviewed Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander.

Submitted by Adrienne Raczki

The sad, complex and lonely life of Astrid Magnussen is examined in this debut novel by Janet Fitch. Astrid and her cold, self-centered poet mother Ingrid are the flaxen beauties from which this tale grows, delving into the gypsy-esque life of the Magnussen women.  Ingrid’s ‘artist’s life’ and indifferent style of mothering make for a wise and weary daughter, with the childish and impulsive behaviour of Ingrid herself leading to the family’s destruction.

Astrid is thrown into the foster care system and paired with strange and needy women as her foster mothers. As each foster family crumbles around her she must adapt to the wildly different, and at times unbelievably stereotypical families. Astrid seems to enjoy the struggle, actually playing an integral part in each households collapse.

As the book unfolds the reader should feel sympathy and concern for Astrid, but her erratic and impulsive behaviour makes it hard for the reader to have those feelings for her.  Instead, we feel frustrated, uncomfortable and at times, annoyed.  So, likely, exactly what it feels like to have an actual teenage girl!

This novel is deep and disturbing and strangely addictive.  The letters that Astrid receives from her mom during her incarceration are heartbreakingly cold and manipulative.  Although a vivid and thick story the ending feels rushed. Fitch attempts to tie up the loose ends of Astrid’s childhood in a conclusion that feels hasty and predictable.  If nothing else this book will help you appreciate your own mom just a bit more.