Sunday, February 23, 2014

White Oleander by Janet Fitch (2/15-2/22)

white oleanderThis was a bit of a busy month for me, so I thought I would try to listen to the book on tape, and I watched the movie.  Not good, I got to my book club and they were talking about sections I had no recollection of at all.  I guess I really do need to read it to absorb it, not just listen.  So as a result, I picked up the book and read it.

This is the story of Astrid, a young girl who grows into a woman while in foster care.  When Astrid is 12, her mother Ingrid poisons her boyfriend and is sent to prison.  The book follows Astrid through various foster home as she grows, both physically and emotionally.  Ultimately, this is a story of a girl growing into a young woman and finding herself, while leaving the shadow’s of her Mother’s personality behind.

The imagery in this book is amazing, I get lost in Fitch’s descriptions of things, beautiful poetry that I could stay lost in for hours.  Everything is so organic, there are flowers and plants everywhere.   In the beginning everything is beautiful and mysterious “the blue of the evening , turn velvet, indigo lingering like an unspoken hope.” Astrid is 12 and on the verge of puberty.  She is still an innocent girl who worships her mother, she hasn’t yet discovered that her mother is imperfect and human.  Ingrid is Astrid’s goddess and she worships her wholeheartedly, and Ingrid likes it that way.  “She thought because I was her daughter that I belonged to her, that she could do anything she wanted with me.”  The world is about Ingrid, who is a selfish and manipulative woman that uses her “art” as a reason to not be held to societies same rules of conduct.  If Ingrid hadn’t been sent to prison, there still would have been conflict because Astrid was growing up and on path to becoming her own person, which her mother never would have understood.  “I felt on the edge of something, a mystery that surrounded me like gauze, something I was beginning to unwind.”

Finch describes every home that Astrid is sent to, and it foreshadows the events that will happen there.  The first foster home that Astrid is sent to is with Starr, and ex stripper, alcoholic, and born again Christian.   “A plastic garden pinwheel stood motionless in a patch of geraniums.  Spider plants hung from pots on the wide trailer porch.”  “there were no fringy jacarandas here, only oleanders and palms, pear cactus and a big weeping pepper.”  Astrid is still na├»ve, and she still sees the beauty that is possible, but there is a sadness to the place, a loss of childhood and innocence that will happen when Astrid and Ray’s relationship develops and drives Starr to shoot Astrid and loose all that she has worked for.

After Astrid is shot she is sent to live with Marvel and Ed, a bigot who only sees Astrid as a hired maid, that she doesn’t have to pay.  “It was the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare. It was the gap in the chain of deciduous trees that cradled every other house on the block, defiantly ugly in its nakedness.”  Marvel is cheerful on the outside, but inside she is full of hate, for her neighbors, for Astrid, and possibly even herself.  Here Astrid meets Olivia, a whore, and learns that as a woman, she can have some control of her life, if she just takes it.  But one Marvel finds out about Astrid and Olivia’s friendship, she sends Astrid away.

Astrid arrives at her 3rd home, “A big wooden craftsman with a deep eaved porch, too nice for foster care.  Inside it was dark, the windows covered with heavy curtains.  The woodwork gleamed halfway up the walls, smelling of lemon oil.”  Amelia, looks picture perfect on the outside, nice house, nice person, but she isn’t she is cruel and vicious, taking the girls money from the foster system and remolding her house, all the while starving the girls.  Astrid learns here, that as cruel as it may seem, sometimes you have to look out for yourself and no-one else.

The home that Astrid finally found the love she had been looking for was with Claire.  “An old neighborhood of stucco bungalows and full-growth sycamores with chalky white trunks and leaves like hands.”  Claire was sick, and mentally unstable and Ingrid jealous of Clair and Astrid’s relationship manipulated her into committing suicide.  Astrid blames herself and feels that anything she gets after Clair is deserved.

When Clair dies, Astrid is sent to McLaren Children’s Center “Block walls, linoleum floors, the shadows of pines against the outside lights, and the sleeping shapes of my roommates under their thin thermal blankets.”  This is her own version of prison, where she must serve her time for allowing Clair to be touched and ruined by Ingrid.  Astrid has stopped worshipping her mother and has broken the connections as best she can.  But because of Clair’s death she doesn’t feel she deserves redemption or a good life and that is why she passes on a good family and instead chooses to go with Rena when she leaves the center.

Rena is a Russian immigrant who has a very selfish view of the world.  “A glum cocoa-brown Spanish bungalow with heavy plasterwork, dark windows and a patchy lawn surrounded by a chain-link fence.”  Rena is constantly asking “What is in it for me?”  She teaches Astrid to stand up for herself, and that she can demand things.  Astrid finally builds some defenses, not only against the world, but also against her mother.

In the final chapter, Astrid is living in Berlin with her boyfriend Paul , “It was crumbling and coal heated, but we could afford it most of the time.”  “I liked Berlin. The city and I understood each other.  I liked that they had left the bombed out hulk of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church as a monument to loss.  Nobody had forgotten anything here.  In Berlin, you had to wrestle with the past, you had to build on the ruins, inside them.  It wasn’t like America, where we scraped the earth clean, thinking we could start again every time.  We hadn’t learned yet, that there was no such thing as an empty canvas.”   I could see the wrap up for Astrid, free of her mother, still drawn to her, but not giving into the temptation.  I was however very confused about her and Paul’s relationship.  There was no real build up to it, yeah they met at McLaren’s and connected but then nothing until she is living with him in Berlin.  It didn’t fit with Astrid’s character.  The whole book was about her growing and becoming her own person, a woman strong enough to defy her mother, then boom she is a girlfriend trying to promote her boyfriends dreams and not pursuing her own.  How did that happen?  What was the point of the book if she just becomes another woman behind the man?  Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t the way the character was going.  It’s like at the end, Finch said oops nope that isn’t what I meant to write lets do a complete 360.  I loved the book, the rawness, the beauty in the writing.  But I think if I ever re-read it, I will stop at chapter 31.

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