For months, my mom had been telling me to read “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch, and for months, I had been putting it off. My list of to-read books is too long for my preference, but it’s also inconvenient that I’m a college student who has virtually no time to read (hence, why my New Year’s resolution was to read one book a month). For February, I was unsure of what to read. I had just finished “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell and trying to find equal stimulation was going to be tough. My shelf is filled with classic novels, business novels recommended by my dad and other random books strewed in with titles I thought were interesting. I was unsure of what was to be the successor of “Fangirl,” so I chose “White Oleander.”
And boy, I’m glad I did. I have to admit, this book was not as stimulating as “Fangirl,” but it was calming in the way it probably shouldn’t have been. Astrid, a young Californian girl, lives with her manipulative hippie mother who goes to jail for killing her ex-lover, forcing Astrid to move throughout the foster system. She is met with too many obstacles a girl her age should have to go through, but it’s fascinating to watch her journey through each one and how she grows into an adult (probably too soon, but that’s what life does to you).
While it’s easy to tell Astrid is a young girl written by an adult, Janet Fitch still did a wonderful job with Astrid’s character development over the course of the book. Astrid in the beginning is completely different from Astrid at the end, an innocent girl with a warped perception of the world at the hands of her mother. Her presence is Astrid’s entire life turned the main character into a young adult hardened by the troubles she faced in the system, the people who took advantage of her and used her, who showed her love
then ripped it away, and a mother who was still trying to control every aspect of poor Astrid’s life from the letters sent from behind bars. When I closed the book after finishing it, I felt shell-shocked. This girl, younger than me, had experienced more than I could fathom, and the worst part was that it happens to girls like her in real life all. the. time.
Poor, orphaned or abandoned girls are sucked into a system that is said to be for their best interest, but is more interested in money and getting the kid into any home they can so the social workers can say they did it. Fitch’s characters were very well-written and had prominent personalities that were completely identifiable, and their interactions with Astrid only improved their written personas all while affecting Astrid’s character development, but in a good way – if good means Fitch’s ability to have a character grow rather than the actual situations Astrid was put through. Man, this girl had it tough. And sometimes, it hurt to read.
I imagine that’s exactly what Fitch wanted. To show that life really is unfair, and no matter how good or kind or beautiful you are, life hurts everyone, some more than others. Astrid more than the average person, and solely because she was good, kind and beautiful. Jealousy is gun-wielding dangerous, beauty is prostitution, slavery is only one meal a day. Just when I thought Astrid had gone through enough, Fitch added in another thing, and then another thing, and then another, just to remind us readers that life doesn’t end just because you’ve had enough, and it is to keep going that matters.
And to stick it to the big man – or mother, in Astrid’s case.
When Astrid finally let go of her oppressive mother, I could literally feel the freedom on the pages. A girl, tormented by life and the system for years on end, all the while her jailed mother scrutinized from the tiny cell block, finally found freedom in the most broken of homes and in the arms of the only person who ever saw her for her; not a product of her mother, not a ward of the system, not as a child, or as a broken adult, but as Astrid Magnusson. The girl who found herself while the world around her tried to tear her apart.
This book was almost as good as my mom had said it was. The only thing setting it back from receiving the full five stars from me is the adult language that Fitch wrote with. At times, I found myself bored at the slowness of the story, and it only seemed to go slow because of Fitch’s language. Some words were too big for Astrid’s age, and sometimes she was too wise for a 13-year-old. Besides the language discrepancies, I genuinely enjoyed reading “White Oleander” and I will never stop feeling unbearably sad for Astrid. She may have had a happy ending, but I will never be able to shake what she had to go through to get there.
Kudos, Janet Fitch.
Rate: 3.5/5 stars