White Oleander, Janet Fitch


White Oleander

Cover of "White Oleander"

Cover of White Oleander

Author: Janet Fitch 

First Edition: 1999, Little, Brown and Co.

Original language: English


White Oleander is narrated by Astrid Magnussen, the daughter of little-known poet, Ingrid Magnussen.  Ingrid is self-centered and isolates Astrid from others as she grows up having trouble at school, with an eccentric often out of work actor and neighbor as her only friend.

Ingrid rarely mentions Astrid’s father and has only passing relationships with men until she meets Barry Kolker, an overweight and unattractive man who pursues her until she finally gives in.  For a while things with Barry, who is very rich, go well and Astrid feels like she is part of a normal family.  However, Barry soon loses interest in Ingrid and the relationship sours.  Ingrid, who was initially disgusted by Barry, becomes a stalker, following Barry everywhere, trying to set up “chance” encounters.  After completely embarrassing herself, Ingrid loses control and poisons him with oleander, for which she is convicted of murder.

Astrid is left with no family and goes into a series of foster homes where she grows up and learns about herself through ordeal after ordeal and home after home.  Along the way, Astrid’s relationship with her mother, as well as her artistic talent evolve.



“Always learn poems by heart,” she said.  “They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s decay.”

“Only peons make excuses for themselves, she taught me.  Never apologize, never explain.”

“A mans world.  But what did that mean? That men whistled and stared and yelled things at you, and that you had to take it, or you could get raped or beat up.  A man’s world meant places men could go but not women.  It meant they had more money and didn’t have kids, not the way women did, to look after every second.  And it meant that women loved them more than they loved the women, that they could want something with all their hearts and then not.”

“Admire the skill of a fellow magician but never fall under his spell”

“The pearls weren’t really white, they were a warm oyster beige, with little knots in between them so if they broke, you only lost one.  I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.”

“I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this.  Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music, find it a comfortable chair.  Despair was the enemy.”

“It scared me when she said perfect.  Perfect was always too much to ask.”

“I hadn’t understood it at the time.  If sinners were so unhappy, why would they prefer their suffering?  But I knew why.  Without my wounds, who was I?  My scars were my face, my past was my life.”

“My mother once wrote a poem about rivers.  The were women, she wrote.  Starting out small girls, tiny streams decorated with wildflowers.  Then they were torrents, gouging past through sheer granite, flinging themselves off cliffs, fearless and irresistible.  Later, they grow fat and serviceable, broad slow curves carrying commerce and sewage, but in their unconscious depths catfish gorged, grew the size of barges, an in the hundred-year storms, they rose up, forgetting the promises they made, the wedding vows, and drowned everything for miles around.  Finally, they gave out, birth-emptied, malarial, into a fan of swamp that met the sea.”

“well, anyone could buy a green jaguar, find beauty in a Japanese screen two thousand years old.  I would rather be a connoisseur of neglected rivers and flowering mustard and the flush of iridescent pink on an intersection pigeon’s charcoal neck.”

“What was the value of four Vietnam vets playing poker every afternoon in front of the Spanish market on Glendale Boulevard, making their moves with a greasy deck missing a queen and a five?  Maybe the world depended on them, maybe they were the Fates, or the Graces.”

“Its not that he was going nowhere, it’s that he’d already arrived.”



This book was a surprise.  I have not seen the movie (it is on my DVR), but I was expecting something totally different.  To tell the truth, I was expecting some kind of murderous Steel Magnolias.  What I got was a beautiful, lyrical, coming-of-age story with a little Chuck Palahniuk mixed in.  I love it when a book surprises me and this one definitely did.

I loved the complexity of the characters.  Astrid was not perfect and did a lot of pretty nasty things- and many were not justified.  However, she was a character that was real and human and multifaceted.  Ingrid was the opposite- you hated her most of the time, but there were instances where the reader understands her and feels for her.  The other characters were also fantastic: Starr, Olivia, Marvel…

This book was beautiful and a great read.  Highly recommended.

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