by Liza Boldrick
There are two types of books: those which you can abandon for a day or two when things get hectic, and those which become temporarily fused to your fingertips, making the trip with you to the coffee maker, the gym, and narrowly avoiding a watery grave when you switch from showers to baths so you can keep reading without sacrificing hygiene. White Oleander by Janet Fitch falls squarely into the second category. But be warned: the novel’s magnetism comes not from a quick pace or easy humor, but rather a harrowing, heartbreaking plot–at times slow, but never boring–and a cast of characters who will make you alternately praise and question modern humanity, or as Fitch puts it, the “vastness of human suffering.”
White Oleander tells the story of a reticent adolescent girl named Astrid who grows up first under the crushing, dazzling shadow of her larger-than-life poet mother, then in a motley array of various foster homes. It could be a classic coming-of-age story, except that Astrid is dragged through hell time and time again in a journey toward adulthood that isn’t “classic” in any sense of the word. Each new foster home brings a new universe for Astrid to try to mold herself into, with her mother attempting to play marionette master from prison, so that Astrid must continually re-learn how to survive in a world that feels no obligation for her protection. Fitch spares no painful detail as she moves through each home and Astrid’s increasingly toughened reactions, but the language is anything but rough. Fitch’s voice remains lyrical and stunning yet never loses its realism.
The poetry within the pain, perhaps, is the novel’s greatest strength. Expectedly, and realistically, Astrid hardens and becomes more cynical as a result of her trials. (It would be an insult to the reader’s intelligence to suggest otherwise.) Accompanying the quiet, initially faultless narrator on her journey can be painful, but Fitch rewards us by never abandoning Astrid’s softer side. Even in Astrid’s darkest circumstances–trying to survive in dank city foster homes overcrowded with violent, it’s-you-or-me street kids, grappling with authority figures using the foster system to unburden their own twisted psyches–Fitch manages to convey the darkness in beautiful and believable terms. Poetry is Astrid’s armor: “[Poems] 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.”
Astrid’s story is one of survival, but even more so of adaptation, and of molding what you’re given into something beautiful. After all, as Astrid’s mother says, “No one becomes an artist unless they have to.”