Excerpt from White Oleander by Janet Fitch, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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White Oleander

by Janet Fitch

White Oleander
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  • First Published:
    May 1999, 390 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2000, 400 pages

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The writers laughed, uneasily.

Nobody took any note when Bob, the publisher, came in. I dropped my head and used the T square, as if I were doing something official. So far he hadn't said anything about my coming to work with my mother, but Marlene, the art director, told me to "fly low, avoid the radar." He never noticed me. Only my mother. That day he came and stood next to her stool, reading over her shoulder. That day he just wanted to stand close to her, touch her hair that was white as glacier milk, and see if he could look down her shirt. I could see the loathing on her face as he bent over her, and then, as if to steady himself, put his hand on her thigh.

She pretended to startle, and in one spare movement, cut his bare forearm with the razor-edged X-acto.

He looked down at his arm, astonished at the thread of blood that began to appear.

"Oh, Bob!" she said. "I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there. Are you all right?" But the look that she gave him with her cornflower eyes showed him she could have just as easily slit his throat.

"No problem, just a little accident." His arm bore a two-inch gash below his polo shirt sleeve. "Just an accident," he said a bit louder, as if reassuring everybody, and scuttled back to his office.

For lunch, we drove into the hills and parked in the dappled shade of a big sycamore, its powdery white bark like a woman's body against the uncanny blue sky. We ate yogurt from cartons and listened to Anne Sexton reading her own poetry on the tape deck in her scary ironic American drawl. She was reading about being in a mental home, ringing the bells. My mother stopped the tape. "Tell me the next line."

I liked it when my mother tried to teach me things, when she paid attention. So often when I was with her, she was unreachable. Whenever she turned her steep focus to me, I felt the warmth that flowers must feel when they bloom through the snow, under in the first concentrated rays of the sun.

I didn't have to grope for the answer. It was like a song, and the light filtered through the sycamore tree as crazy Anne rang her bell, B-flat, and my mother nodded.

"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 soft decay."

I imagined my soul taking in these words like silicated water in the Petrified Forest, turning my wood to patterned agate. I liked it when my mother shaped me this way. I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter's hand.

In the afternoon, the editor descended on the art room, dragging scarves of Oriental perfume that lingered in the air long after she was gone. A thin woman with overbright eyes and the nervous gestures of a frightened bird, Kit smiled too widely in her red lipstick as she darted here and there, looking at the design, examining pages, stopping to read type over my mother's shoulder, and pointing out corrections. My mother flipped her hair back, a cat twitching before it clawed you.

"All that hair," Kit said. "Isn't it dangerous in your line of work? Around the waxer and all." Her own hairstyle was geometric, dyed an inky black and shaved at the neck.

My mother ignored her, but let the X-acto fall so it impaled the desktop like a javelin.

After Kit left, my mother said to the art director, "I'm sure she'd prefer me in a crew cut. Dyed to her own bituminous shade."

"Vampire 'n' Easy," Marlene said.

I didn't look up. I knew the only reason we were here was because of me. If it weren't for me, she wouldn't have to take jobs like this. She would be half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to flamenco guitar. I felt my guilt like a brand.

That night she went out by herself. I drew for an hour, ate a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, then drifted next door to Michael's, knocked on the hollow door. Three bolts fell back. "It's Queen Christina." He smiled, a gentle soft man about my mother's age, but puffy and pale from drinking and being inside all the time. He cleared a pile of dirty clothes and Variety from the couch so I could sit down.

© 1999 by Janet Fitch. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Little,Brown & Co.

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