White Oleander

book by Janet Fitch

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have always been interested in reading LA writers to get a handle on the literary scene around here, but have been appalingly late to the read on Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. The book is not only a great read and a fascinating study of a narcissistic character (more on that later), it contains  the most beautiful physical descriptions of Los Angeles I’ve ever read. In other books, there have been descriptions of west side life, the life of screenwriters, rife with bougainvillea and jasmine and In n’ Out franchises, or dark noir cityscapes, but Fitch manages to capture the city as a living, breathing organism, with seasons, neighborhoods and moods. LA is so strange to transplants, so familiar to locals, that it frequently gets short shrift as a literary landscape.

Fitch puts us there from the first line, “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw.”

Fitch gives us pre-teen and teenage Astrid as she moves from foster home to foster home, across neighborhoods, demographic lines and environments of Los Angeles. The so often called “urban sprawl” becomes areas of specific neighborhoods and people, from the racist Myrtle (“The air in Van Nuys was thicker than in Sunland-Tujunga. It was a kingdom of strip malls and boulevards a quarter mile across, neighborhoods of ground-hugging tracts dwarfed by full-growth peppers and sweet gums fifty feet high.” 101), to the west side actress Claire(“an old neighborhood of stucco bungalows and full-growth sycamores with chalky white trunks and leaves like hands” 169), to the Tujunga desert-dwelling Starr and Ray (“In November, when the air held blue in the afternoons and the sunlight washed the boulders in gold, I turned fourteen.” 71), to the scrapping Rena and her gang of junk salesgirls (“This is why Rena liked it down here among contractors and bakeries and sheet metal shops…”264). And everywhere Astrid is, she experiences the torrential rains and moody skies of winter and the fires and the hot blowing Santa-Ana winds of summer and autumn. The Santa Anas always blow when Astrid is in a desperate, trapped place, but when she moves foster homes, she is frequently greeted with blue skies and clarity.

I’m working on a novel set in 1930s Hollywood and my knowledge as a 20 year resident of LA has helped in descriptions and weather, but Fitch has inspired me to take it to another level with mood and theme, if nothing else because I owe it to the city where I make my home. New York is a cityscape we know and are given over and over in all of its textures and seasons. LA deserves a fair shake.

Fitch’s language is so carefully wrought, her sentences specific, often lyrical, but never to the extent that they distract from the story itself. Astrid, in her uncertainty and questioning, makes an excellent glass-bottom boat for the city. She has grown up in a bizarre circumstance, the afterthought of a narcissistic mother, a stranger to holidays and school–regular kids stuff. She has the ability to observe each new take on life, from an evangelical church, to a high-class hooker’s home, to a nervous wreck of a marriage and her prism is so skewed that everything is new. Fitch gets us into Astrid’s present life immediately and with such strength and surroundings, that by the time her mother, Ingrid, kills Barry Kolker and changes her child’s life, I wondered where Astrid could possibly go for the remaining 300 pages of the novel.  Being unfamiliar with the overall movement of the story, I was put in the enviable position of being surprised by every twist and turn of Astrid’s wayward childhood and stunned again and again that Fitch could keep the tension going through so many different environments. And each time she moved to a new foster home, I cringed with Astrid, waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know this is not a girl bound for an Orphan Annie ending where she finds her true home at last.

The character of Astrid’s mother, the narcissistic. Notoriety-seeking poet, Ingrid was truly fascinating, as I consider myself a longtime student of the narcissist. I have several people I love in my life who were affected negatively by narcissistic mothers and have toyed with narcissistic characters in the past. Ingrid is a portrait of pure destructive narcissism. Her self-absorption is obvious immediately, and yet Fitch keeps us wondering what she will try next. She is paralyzing for her daughter, but it is only when she becomes incarcerated for murdering her boyfriend that she becomes truly dangerous for Astrid. Astrid just begins to get a handle on life when her mother, having nothing else to do in prison (although one wonders at her life with her inmates) sends her ruinous letters, attempting to manipulate her, hurt her, and possess her; at the same time she has given her daughter up in the most selfish way possible by giving in to murder, knowing full well the possible consequences. With the title, the method of killing the boyfriend (poison) and the poison in the letters, Fitch creates a fascinating and unredeemable villain. And she works just fine. When Astrid finally gets a toehold on life and seems to move on, but we can feel her mother’s poison working again… Ingrid haunts beyond the finish of the book. The villain in my ghost story is narcissistic, destructive and self-absorbed, but feels two dimensional next to Ingrid. I long to take another whack at the pain such a character can inflict on a sensitive protagonist’s life. I’m not certain what form he or she will take, but said villain will definitely owe a nod to Ms. Fitch.

Fitch is a good reminder to keep each new aspect of a story as environmentally alive and vivid as the last. So many authors give us vivid descriptions in some portions of a novel and just sketches of another. The only way Astrid’s constantly changing adventures keep hold of us is through Fitch’s attention to details, objects, colors, and to LA’s weather, apartments and neighborhoods. We feel, smell, touch, hear and taste with Astrid—the food changes with every new home. She lives on Chalet Gourmet appetizers with Claire, on nourishing food she cooks with Starr and Ray, on processed foods with Mavis. Because of these details, as well as Astrid’s constant longing for family, we are moved from one world to another without taking a breath. I, too, fall victim to some thorough description followed by sketching and this book reminds me to pay equal attention to each world I’m putting forth. This is crucial in my present novel, which goes across time and place, frequently bouncing between.

But the most important lesson here is: Angelenos, San Franciscans, Clevelandites, Minneapolans, Milwaukeans Middletonians, exploit the world around you, it is rich in details and you owe it to your city to portray it fully.

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4 thoughts on “White Oleander

  1. Love that book – remains evocative years later. Good reminder as I work on mine re how a city can become a character. Will see what Nairobi has in store for me!

  2. Reminds me of why this book blew me away. Fitch can create an entire world with a few deft sketches. Although familiar with the neighborhoods she described, her words made me see them from a new perspective. I hadn’t consciously noticed the way the food changes with each of Astrid’s new homes. Hmmm, time to reread this masterful portrayal.

  3. I didn’t know White Oleander was a book. I seen the movie years ago and really liked it. It would be interesting to read a book that really gives focus to a city. I shall add it to my “to-read list.”

  4. Great annotation, Kate. I remember being so enthralled by Ingrid and her complete villainy that I was a bit let down to find that Astrid was actually the main character. Masterful novel, wasn’t it?

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