Summary and book reviews of White Oleander by Janet Fitch

White Oleander

by Janet Fitch

White Oleander
  • Critics' Opinion:

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

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Book Summary

The unforgettable story of Astrid's journey through a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances.

Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery-but their idyll is shattered when Astrid's mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is sentenced to life in prison.

White Oleander is the unforgettable story of Astrid's journey through a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances. Each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned. With determination and humor, Astrid confronts the challenges of loneliness and poverty, and strives to learn who a motherless child in an indifferent world can become.

Tough, irrepressible, funny, and warm, Astrid is one of the most indelible characters in recent fiction. White Oleander is an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, burgeoning sexuality, the redemptive powers of art, and the unstoppable force of the emergent self. Written with exquisite beauty and grace, this is a compelling debut by an author poised to join the ranks of today's most gifted novelists.

The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.

"Oleander time," she said. "Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind." She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the wind trace itself through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was here, that the wind would stop blowing.

"You should get some sleep," I offered.

"I never sleep," she said.

I sat next to her, and we stared out at the city that hummed and glittered like a computer chip deep in some ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  • Describe the relationship between Astrid and Ingrid early in the book. Why was Astrid fearful her mother would "fly away" if she mentioned she would have enjoyed having a father, summer camp, a Y program, or summer school?

  • Astrid said "My mother was not the least bit curious about me." (p. 10) How do you think that made this twelve year-old feel? What do you think that does to a child to come to that realization?

  • Why does Astrid express herself through her paintings and drawings versus words?

  • Discuss the symbolism of the wildfires and Astrid's coming of age, her desires, and her feelings?

  • Compare the characteristics of the white oleander to Ingrid. Then draw a comparison to the type of mother she was, and the type of ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

[An] impressive first novel.... her startlingly apt language relates a story that is both intelligent and gripping.

Publishers Weekly

Thirteen-year-old Astrid Magnussen, the sensitive and heart-wrenching narrator of this impressive debut, is burdened with an impossible mother in Ingrid, a beautiful gifted poet whose scattered life is governed by an enormous ego.

Author Blurb JRobert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Janet Fitch writes with breathtaking beauty about the central theme of our age the search for self. White Oleander is a remarkable debut novel.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Berg, author of Durable Goods and Range of Motion
This is what you're after when you're browsing the shelves for something good to read. White Oleander is a siren song of a novel, seducing the reader with its story, its language, and, perhaps most of all, with its utterly believable (and remarkably diverse!) characters. The narrator is particularly memorable-there were times she made me want to cheer and weep simultaneously. Finishing this book made me feel gratefully bereft, and I look forward to Janet Fitch's next work.

Reader Reviews

Zee Krstic

Relationships 101 - White Oleander
A relationship between a daughter and her mother is hard to describe. It can be one of hate, of discord, of strain, of deep love. An Oprah’s Book Choice in 1999, White Oleander by Janet Fitch is a tale of love; deep, twisted love, and the strain of ...   Read More

Lauren McCoy

A Poisonous Romance
White Oleander portrays a beautiful story of a mother-daughter relationship,and the search for feminine identity. Ingrid, the selfish, irresponsible mother of Astrid, is a famous poetry writer in California. She drags her thirteen year old daughter ...   Read More

Christin

White Oleander
Janet Fitch’s beautifully written novel White Oleander is the story about the agonizing and obscure journey that is Astrid Magnussen’s life. Shaken and destroyed by her mother Ingrid’s imprisonment for the murder of her boyfriend, Astrid is uprooted...   Read More

Michelle L

Amazing
This is quite possibly the most amazing book ever written. I have read it over and over again, and it never gets old. The language is so magnificent, I just want to hold onto every word. The characters are portrayed perfectly and you truly feel ...   Read More

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