Womanhood of a Slow Poison Called Beauty (White Oleander – A Book Review)

White Oleander

Author: Janet Fitch

Published: 1999

On Goodreads

My Rating:

Rated T for the toxic and terrible, yet tremendous vision of growing up.

“Oleander time. Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.”

Here comes the tale of Ingrid, a brilliant poet who’s incarcerated for murder, and her daughter, Astrid who is suddenly thrust into a world she thought she knew. In the foster system, she goes from home to home, each their own little world she couldn’t have imagined. Each holds their own possibilities, dangers, and unforgettable lessons. But there is one thing this journey offers as Astrid learns to live without her mother, and that’s the discovery of self.

I found this book like I found treasure. In a large book sale in an old warehouse with dark grey, concrete floors, and shelves made of spare pieces of wood that were in utter disarray. A perfect place for bookworms to lift the layers and discover hidden gems. Now, I watched the movie before I read the book, and it was such a long time ago. You can think of that as some kind of faux pas if it makes you happy. Honestly, it’s what got me wanting to read the book. Years went by. I grew up. And, the yearning to read this dark, coming-of-age tale in the thrall of the nineties in a broiling part of the U.S. faded some. It sparked back to life when I Found a copy and added it to my book mountain.

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This was unlike the books I’ll typically fall into. I’m very close with my mother; I’d say as close as Astrid is with hers. If my mother committed murder I’d probably hide it away as well and struggle to find my way. BUT. I can’t say that she’d expect me to or force me to for her own selfish expectations and hopes and inspirations.

Probably the most obvious thing I can state before diving into this review so deeply is that there is so much more to the book than the movie. Of course, there is. With the movie, there were the important parts that made the most significant impacts on Astrid, and in the book, you get the ones that were also in between these moments. There was certainly more to know about Claire such as her eating disorder and with Star, like her struggle with drug addiction. But there was also Marvel and Olivia, and a tragic dog attack. Each represented a part of womanhood that enticed Astrid and a part that was horrifying. Both contained a type of freedom that she questioned. The extra parts like this gave more depth than the movie could offer. One thing is for certain, while the book didn’t turn away from the discomforts such as

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Throughout Astrid’s teen years she went from home to home. whether she was looking n purpose or not, she found mothers that slipped into the role in her life that her incarcerated mother couldn’t, and for that matter wouldn’t and would never do. She was in the midst of trying to figure out who she was and who she wanted to be.

There was a beauty and power (as has been said countless times in every review known to everyone about this). It was in the words and the imagery that struck like bright and deadly lightning with the boundaries each strike dared to decimate. Nothing about this book was comfortable or romantic or tender or dreamy. It’s life. Growing up a woman is hard enough, but here it is, in the eyes of a young one without any real guidance. The life lessons for Astrid were brutal as she did her best to navigate through what it meant to love and to have sex, to figure out what made a woman her own self, to handle self-love and the love of others, and more.

The oleander followed Astrid, and in a way, I wondered if she thought of herself as the deadly flower, it’s beauty so poisonous. Each home she was put in seemed to shift into something dark and ugly not long after her arrival. Whether it was what tactics she utilized from her mother or that of the mother currently in her life, it was simply tragic and heartbreaking. Astrid couldn’t find a home in the world or within herself as her self-esteem, heart, and sense of self were battered in this vulnerable era.

Each mother figure to circulate Astrid’s life didn’t just leave her with scars, which could be physical, mental, and/or emotional, but they had much to teach her whether they realized it at all. Astrid did. Each time they seemed to fail her I could feel my gut pull and my heart tear. Growing up wasn’t easy for me either. My mother struggled with the demons that followed her from the hateful relationship she had with her mother. It tended to trickle down to me sometimes and then there were the times she would attempt to recapture the young life she never had thanks to said mother. I’m not angry at her for it, much like Astrid wasn’t truly ever angry with her mom. I could never be angry about it. But, it’s been addressed and we’ve been able to develop a much relationship now, while she embraces the age of grandmothers and I walk into the age of mothers, a role I’m not clear I’ll ever accept. Still, this story of Astrid was so close to my own though they were so different. Two sides of the same coin. There were times when I wasn’t with my mother. There were times when I wanted to be away from her. There were times I wanted to be nowhere else but at her side. I get it, Astrid.

Overall

It doesn’t happen too often. I usually do my reviews on the edge of my seat, holding onto my pants, the impression that struck me so powerfully. But on occasion, I get the book that carries depth and is thought-provoking. Fitch hooked me good.

Stupendous writing and storytelling. A tale that I think every woman should read. The growth and shapeshifting to adapt to every new situation was incredible. Each representation of motherhood was pressed upon. The showcase that a mother can only do their best and the way it can push them into something unrecognizable was incredible. I do highly recommend this so much.

Quotables:

“Beauty was my mother’s law, her religion. You could do anything you wanted, as long as you were beautiful, as long as you did things beautifully.” (p. 12-13)

“Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it.” (Ingrid, p. 126)

“Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music, find it a comfortable chair. Despair was the enemy.” (p. 264)

“They wanted the real mother, the blood mother, the great womb, mother of fierce compassion, a woman large enough to hold all the pain, to carry it away. What we needed was someone who bled, someone deep and rich as a field, a wide-hipped mother, awesome, immense, women like huge soft couches, mothers coursing with blood, mother big enough, wide enough, for us to hide in, to sink down to the bottom of, mothers who would breathe for us when we could not breathe anymore, who would fight for us, who would kill for us, die for us.” (p. 404)

 “You ask me about regret? Let me tell you a few things about regret, my darling. There is no end to it. You cannot find the beginning of the chain that brought us from there to here. Should you regret the chain, and the air in between, or each link separately, as if you could uncouple them? Do you regret the beginning which ended so badly, or just the ending itself? I’ve given more thought to this question than you can begin to imagine.”  (Ingrid to Astrid, p. 430)

More to come soon…                                                                                               

  -K.

Song Today? Midnight Rain – Taylor Swift.

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