“Oleander time” A review of Janet Fitch’s tale of simple elegance

 Oleanders are small evergreen shrubs or trees that are often planted as common garden plants. While beautiful, they are also the most poisonous and toxic of any garden plant. It’s no wonder Janet Fitch revolved the plot of her book around the concept of poison and death that comes with this beautiful piece of nature.

Janet Fitch’s White Oleander has been sitting on the bookshelf in the den ever since we moved into this house. My grandmother has read it close to 20 times and has always told me that I would enjoy it. But after reading the cover flap for a synopsis, I was never really interested. The main character’s name was Astrid and her mother’s name was Ingrid. That alone right there was enough to turn me off. But as I was channel surfing one day, I came across the movie version on TV and was immediately sucked in. The story is quite dark but enlightening at the same time. I personally would call it a “twisted coming of age story” when referring to the journey Astrid takes throughout the book. After her mother is arrested for murdering her boyfriend, Astrid is shoved into a world full of foster homes (six to be exact), loneliness, and depression. She goes from the home of a former stripper and heroin addict to a babysitter in the home of a modern family with two to the home of a Hollywood designer who starves her children in the mornings to the home of a former actress who commits suicide over her husband’s affair. She is then put in a “last resort” foster home where she meets Paul who will eventually play a much larger role in her life. Her final foster home is with a Russian immigrant in which Astrid takes her first acid trip and begins having  dark memories of her childhood. She goes from being a saint-like God-faring adolescent to a rebel-rousing Goth chick to even a serious drug user and a shooting victim all in the course of a few months. She goes through these transitions not only due to the different environments she’s raised in, but she changes herself as a statement to her mother. She’s extremely angry with Ingrid for leaving her alone so much as a young child and for disappointing her for murdering someone she claimed she loved. Because of her mother’s actions, Astrid had such a warped perspective on life and it’s no wonder she couldn’t decide whether to worship on Sunday morning or wake up from that drunken stupor with the meth adict laying beside her. She also fosters admirers from the prison in which her mother is sentenced and forms a relationship with several inmates.

But through all this, I think we can all relate to Astrid and the transtitions she goes through. We were all 16 once. We know what it’s like growing up in a world full of materialism, varying opinions, experimentation, and people who hate. There are also those of us out there who come from dysfunctional homes and families and who have made decisions we are far from proud of. But we’ve reached the light at the end of the tunnel, just as Astrid did in the end of the story. Her passion for art, something she gained from her mother, takes her on the path that will define the rest of her life and finally brings her to a true love she can cherish. As a metaphor for her journey through life, Astrid begins making art with suitcases.

This book was reviewed as portraying a “simple elegance” and I have to admit that I agree. Oprah was definitely on the right track when she made this one of her Book Club picks back in 1999. This book not only is a testament to the sacred relationship between mother and daughter but it’s a guiding light for adolescents who are struggling through the trials of life. I read this at the age of 20 and still found it inspiring and helpful in the tribulations I was facing as a college student. There’s no doubt in my mind that the elegant simplicity of this novel will ring true in the ears of young and old.

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