Book Review: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

32234Book Description

White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid, whose odyssey through a series of Los Angeles foster homes—each its own universe, with its own laws, its own dangers, its own hard lessons to be learned—becomes a redeeming and surprising journey of self-discovery.

First, I want to say that I had no idea this book was made into a movie. Of course, I was only seven when the book was published, and not much older when the film was released. I would like to see the movie, though, just to see how much it sticks to the source material, or if it makes minor (or drastic) changes (the relationship between Astrid and Ray comes to mind) to appease a “not so literary” audience.


From the opening scene, I loved Fitch’s writing style. Her prose is very poetic, and it flows smoothly throughout the first pages. Her descriptions of California are so vivid. I could feel, smell, taste the air.

I was drawn most to Ingrid’s character. Even towards the end of the novel, when it became evident that the author wanted the reader to hate Ingrid, I still loved her. Ingrid’s this badass poet who lives a bohemian lifestyle and doesn’t allow herself to be distracted by emotions or men. That is until Barry comes in and changes things. This obnoxiously unattractive man who doesn’t even deserve a second glance somehow not only gains her attention, but also her heart, just to chew it up and spit it right back out.

The way Ingrid murders Barry is so beautifully romantic. She doesn’t shoot or stab him over a broken heart, seeking revenge. She doesn’t hate him. She’s more angry with herself for allowing the fling with Barry to even go as far as it did. But she won’t kill herself. That’s not Ingrid; she’s too proud for that. Instead, she boils down poisonous oleanders into a killer potion!

Unfortunately, even in fiction, you can’t murder someone and get away with it (unless you’re cop, but that’s another story). Ingrid is arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

Astrid, who at this point is only 12, is put into foster care where she meets a string of interesting people. First, there’s the promiscuous, Bible-toting foster mom and her pedophile boyfriend. Then there’s the bigoted slave mistress and the black, high class prostitute next door. Next, it’s the evil stepmother who forces Astrid and her evil stepfoster sisters to remodel her house and eat out of the trash. If things couldn’t get any worse, we have the sad, lonely wife who commits suicide, Mac Children’s Center where Astrid is beaten up on the playground by all the girls because the boys have wandering eyes, and lastly, the scavenging Russian who pimps  Astrid out both figuratively and (unknowingly) literally.

That is quite the experience for someone so young, and all of this happens over the course of six years. I don’t know if foster care is really this horrible, but Fitch makes you believe it. She brings the characters to life with her prose, and each character has a distinct voice. No two foster mothers are the same. Although each situation is bad, it’s bad in it’s own way, and we see how each situation molds Astrid into a different manifestation of herself, not always pleasant, but definitely a product of her environments.


While I enjoyed this novel, it could’ve  ended 100 pages, even 150 pages sooner than it actually did. A little over halfway through the novel, the poetry of the writing declined, and it became a chore to read.

Astrid’s inner dialogue increases dramatically in the second half of the novel. She continuously complains about her situation, blaming everyone around her, especially her mother, for her problems, but she still settles into that life. She has the opportunity to go home with a nice family & she chooses the crazy, drunk Russian chick instead. I didn’t have much sympathy for her after that. Bad thing after bad thing continues to happen to her, and 50 pages from the end, I feared that nothing would change, that there would be no real resolution.

I also thought the second half of the novel was overwritten, as if Fitch was trying to explain and force the reader to understand why Astrid made the decisions she did, but it was too much, it sounded very melodramatic, and worst of all, it slowed down the plot.

The last chapter seemed out of place. I think it’s set three years in the future. Astrid’s living in Europe with Paul— a foster kid she met at Mac and kept in touch with afterwards, although we saw about three pages worth of that relationship (I think his character could’ve been fleshed out more). The chapter seemed very depressing. Even after foster care, Astrid still chooses to be miserable. Personally, I think a better ending would have been the chapter before when she last visits Ingrid, and Ingrid, troubled by the hard young woman before her, admits that she would give up her life and freedom for Astrid to go back to the innocent, dreamy child she once was. It shows a vulnerable side of Ingrid we’ve never seen, and it gives us hope that things will get better for Astrid, even when her mother is imprisoned for life.

Too bad we don’t always get the ending we want. Still, I thought this was a good book, and for that reason, I give it . . .

3.5/5 stars

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