September 14, 2000

Grand Ol' Oprah

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Stamping “Oprah’s Book Club” on the cover of a book not only sweeps it straight to the best seller list, but creates the assumption that the pages are full of indulgent sentimental expression most likely related from a female point of view. In the case of White Oleander, both implications have proved to be true. First time author Janet Fitch takes the reader through a 446-page wallow in emotional complexities, but surprisingly it is an elegantly written, magnetic wallow.

The story follows the sensitive and self-conscious narrator and protagonist, Astrid, through her early teen years as she is transposed from foster home to foster home. Fitch successfully avoids creating Astrid into the architypical, angst-ridden adolescent. From her efforts emerge a wise teenage heroine.

Astrid’s understanding is believably beyond her years. As the daughter of a romantic self-reliant poet, Astrid is born a painter with the ability and often unfortunate understanding of such. With her mother’s training, she has a premature comprehension of other’s underlying intentions. Through Astrid, Fitch makes an insightful and detailed analysis of each experience and the characters involved.

After Astrid’s mother is sent to jail for the calculated and poetic murder of her ex-lover, Astrid is sent through a whirlwind of upsetting experiences with five consecutive foster families. The ever-changing household settings help to keep the story moving behind the foreground of meticulous description (although Fitch’s style alone does have the power to propel the reader through the text).

In each foster home awaits a horrid experience that is worse than the last. And part of the presented tragedy is that are presented within the realm of possibility.

In one instance, an affair with her foster mother’s boyfriend that ends in gunshots is followed by a fa mily who treats her as a slave. This episode is in turn followed by a suicide in her next pseudo-family. In the disguise of many different living situations, Fitch continues the pattern of emptiness, so poignant to modern urban life.

Although these situations seem somewhat farcical, they are delivered with sincerity.

Despite the many changes in location, the story does center around the Los Angeles. Each family lives in and around the city, allowing the reader to delve into the lifestyles of various social strata that exist around such major cultural centers. Fitch creates a comprehensive and authentic atmosphere for this Southern California city, and communicates its energy using local flare.

With the first family that is presented to Astrid, Fitch humanizes the trailer-park caricature straight out of The Jerry Springer Show. Later she exposes the inner-workings of life in the cultural wasteland of Mary-Kay suburbia, and then moves to the opposite end of the spectrum with a creatively inclined well-off couple from within the heart of the city.

With gun-fights, statutory rape, and prostitution the story is often times shocking, although not always easy to relate to. But the liquid prose of the narration falls into a dream-like rhythm that forces a leap of empathy. Part of Fitch’s skill is to explain unique situations through the emotions they elicit.

The writing and thought associations in White Oleander are exquisitely crafted and leave the recent reader analyzing the world according to the patterns they set.

Archived article by Sarah Fuss