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
    May 2000, 400 pages

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My mother bent over her drafting table, cutting type without a ruler in long elegant strokes. "This is Zen," she said. "No flaw, no moment's hesitation. A window onto grace." She looked genuinely happy. It sometimes happened when she was pasting up just right, she forgot where she was, why she was there, where she'd been and would rather be, forgot about everything but the gift of cutting a perfectly straight freehand line, a pleasure as pure as when she'd just written a beautiful phrase.

But then I saw what she didn't see, the goat man enter the production room. I didn't want to be the one to ruin her moment of grace, so I kept making my Chinese tree out of benday dots and wrong-sized photo stills from Salaam Bombay! When I glanced up, he caught my eye and put his finger to his lips, crept up behind her and tapped her shoulder. Her knife went slicing through the type. She whirled around and I thought she was going to cut his liver out, but he showed her something that stopped her, a small envelope he put on her table.

"For you and your daughter," he said.

She opened it, removed two tickets, blue-and-white. Her silence as she examined them astonished me. She stared at them, then him, jabbing the sharp end of her X-acto into the rubbery surface of the desk, a dart that stuck there for a moment before she pulled it out.

"Just the concert," she said. "No dinner, no dancing."

"Agreed," he said, but I could see he really didn't believe her. He didn't know her yet.

It was a gamelan concert at the art museum. Now I knew why she accepted. I only wondered how he knew exactly the right thing to propose, the one thing she would never turn down. Had he hidden in the oleanders outside our apartment? Interviewed her friends? Bribed somebody?

The night crackled as my mother and I waited for him in the forecourt of the museum. Everything had turned to static electricity in the heat. I combed my hair to watch the sparks fly from the ends.

Forced to wait, my mother made small, jerky movements with her arms, her hands. "Late. How despicable. I should have known. He's probably off rutting in some field with the other goats. Remind me never to make plans with quadrupeds."

She still had on her work clothes, though she'd had time to change. It was a sign, to indicate to him that it wasn't a real date, that it meant nothing. All around us, women in bright summer silks and a shifting bouquet of expensive perfumes eyed her critically. Men admired her, smiled, stared. She stared back, blue eyes burning, until they grew awkward and turned away.

"Men," she said. "No matter how unappealing, each of them imagines he is somehow worthy."

I saw Barry across the plaza, his bulk jolting on his short legs. He grinned, flashing the gap between his teeth. "Sorry, but traffic was murder."

My mother turned away from the apology. Only peons made excuses for themselves, she taught me. Never apologize, never explain.

The gamelan orchestra was twenty small slim men kneeling before elaborately carved sets of chimes and gongs and drums. The drum began, joined by one of the lower sets of chimes. Then more entered the growing mass of sound. Rhythms began to emerge, expand, complex as lianas. My mother said the gamelan created in the listener a brain wave beyond all alphas and betas and thetas, a brain wave that paralyzed the normal channels of thought and forced new ones to grow outside them, in the untouched regions of the mind, like parallel blood vessels that form to accommodate a damaged heart.

I closed my eyes to watch tiny dancers like jeweled birds cross the dark screen of my eyelids. They took me away, spoke to me in languages that had no words for strange mothers with ice-blue eyes and apartments with ugly sparkles on the front and dead leaves in the pool.

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

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