Trish and Sophia Talk Books: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Trish and Sophia Talk Books
An occasional collaboration in which mom Trish and twenty-something medieval studies major daughter Sophia read and discuss books!

Review: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Hachette (1999)

Our Quick Take: We had a somewhat divided opinion and I liked it more than Sophia, but we agreed that this was a well-written, evocative novel that spoke strongly about relationships and trauma.

“How many children had this happened to? How many children were like me, floating like plankton in the wide ocean? I thought how tenuous the links were between mother and children, between friends, family, things you think are eternal. Everything could be lost, more easily than anyone could imagine.”
Trish: As we approached mid-August, Sophia and I decided that there was time for one more reading collab before she starts back into full time school in September. White Oleander was one that you suggested, Sophia. What brought you to this novel?

Sophia: This book is pretty famous, and I was interested in exploring themes of mother/daughter relationships for our read-along, even though daughter Astrid and mother Ingrid’s relationship is so different from ours. I also had seen some clips from the early 2000s film adaptation, so I had had this book in my head for a while. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to read it! I also feel like the California setting is perfect for the hot and dry month of August.

Trish: I really liked this novel and was glad you suggested it. I thought it was going to be primarily about the mother/daughter relationship too, but Ingrid was largely absent from the page after the first bit. However, her influence over Astrid was ever-present. It’s one of those stories that shows how an individual is often on a developmental course pinging off the overarching influence of their parent. In this case, Astrid is seeking her mother’s gaze when she is young and living with her. Later, she’s trying to escape her mother’s influence, but never quite able to, even though Ingrid is physically absent. But that’s what I liked: we see Astrid’s arc, and how she gradually changes.

Sophia: I definitely did not like this book as much as you. I felt like it was more of an exploration of the failings of the foster system, which overshadowed the mother/daughter themes. Like the author was trying to do two things at once. Additionally, one of my pet peeves in literature (and I found this with the ever-popular “A Little Life”), is when authors write traumatized characters that don’t want to seek help. I think this book relied a bit too much on trauma, and after a while Astrid’s story just got frustrating and repetitive, and I started to lose interest.

Trish: That’s really interesting. I confess to liking A Little Life quite a bit, and this is less of an annoyance to me in a book. But I get where you’re coming from. As a mother, I wanted to jump in and “save” Astrid sometimes, save her from the (what I saw as) maladaptive choices she was making. But, I suppose, Astrid did need to make her own way, and some of the choices she made were, in her own way, adaptive to a terrible situation.

And Ingrid is needy too, in her own way. She needs Astrid’s gaze, her love, her neediness. She exerts her influence with a sharpness that Fitch captures well with knife imagery even in the first chapter:
“We swam in the hot aquamarine of the pool late at night, in the clatter of palms and the twinkle of the new-scoured sky. My mother floated on her back, humming to herself. “God, I love this.” She splashed gently with her fingers, letting her body drift in a slow circle. “Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes your mind.” Her eyes were closed. Beads of water decorated her face, and her hair spread out from her head like jellyfish tendrils. “But hatred, now. That’s something you can use. Sculpt. Wield. It’s hard or soft, however you need it. Love humiliates you, but hatred cradles you. It’s so soothing…”
Ingrid won’t hesitate to cut, to destroy. For me, this was painful to watch when Astrid visits the jail to visit her mother with foster mother Claire in tow. Astrid loves Claire, and Ingrid cut into Claire with a surgeon’s precision, beginning the process of severing her from Astrid. Sophia, did any of the relationships speak to you in the book?

Sophia: I think my favourite relationship was Astrid and Claire. This was the most engaging section of the book for me; as I said earlier, I felt it was too bogged down with negativity. At this time in Astrid’s journey, she is happy and doing well. Maybe I would have enjoyed the book better if there were more ups and downs. Though, I did appreciate how the book showed Astrid’s relationship with each of her foster caregivers. It was interesting to see how she connected with each one.

Trish: I did feel that the book dragged slightly in the second half, though picked up at the end again. The episode near the end where Astrid asks her mother to tell her that she shouldn’t lie for her and testify as to her innocence those years ago is so pivotal and was quite electrifying for me. That, and the ending showed growth on Astrid’s part, but also, surprisingly, on Ingrid’s part as well. I found the ending to be satisfying. Astrid has been forged by hard experience into a young adult, and she’s making difficult, adult decisions that represent balance at the end of the book.

Sophia: Overall, I gave this book a solid 3 out of 5. I enjoyed the writing style; it was poetic and easy to read. But I found the book entirely too frustrating, and not in the good way that often comes with books that deal with hard topics. It was frustrating in the way that made me lose interest, and I didn’t really care to keep reading. But I'm glad I stuck it out, as it’s such an iconic book and was worth the read.

Trish: Thanks for reading with me again. It’s always fun times!