Empathy without understandingBy Rebecca Loh
Written by Janet Fitch
Little, Brown and Company, 1999, 390 pp., $24
Janet Fitch’s White Oleander is yet another book that follows one young woman’s struggle to come of age in spite of the many hardships she encounters. The literary equivalent of a chick flick, Oleander details one girl’s attempts to come to terms with her mother while also surviving the cold and largely indifferent world of foster care.
The novel’s fatal flaw is that its main character and narrator, Astrid Magnussen, while being at once entertaining and tragic, behaves in such a way that the reader can never identify with her. Since the reader can never understand the narrator, the true nature of the other characters and the actions recounted by her can only be guessed.
The novel opens when Astrid is twelve. She has been raised by her single mother Ingrid, a very self-centered poet, who works at forming her daughter with the same care and detachment she uses in forming her poetry. Astrid’s life changes drastically when her mother kills an ex-boyfriend, earning herself a life in prison and sentencing her daughter to years of hopping from foster home to foster home.
Astrid must learn how to survive in this new environment, according to the laws set in each home. During this time, she latches on to the few people who bother to care about her, but with each heartbreak and each physical trauma, Astrid learns to become more and more independent. Her mother keeps a constant presence throughout the novel, as Ingrid’s frequent letters continue to work at shaping her daughter. Through all this, Astrid attempts to figure out who she is and where she came from.
There is no doubt that Astrid is a very likable and precocious girl. She grew up traveling around the world, fed on poetry, and schooled by her mother’s freewheeling example. It is either because her childhood is so complex, or, more likely, evidence of poor writing, that the main character is very hard to understand. Astrid becomes anxious at times because she knows her mother has something devious planned, yet the reader isn’t really shown what clues in her mother’s behavior bring on this anxiety. Astrid becomes a precociously sexual creature at fourteen when she seduces a man in his fifties, then turns off that sexuality as if it never existed, but the reader is never told why. The problem with White Oleander is that it asks its readers to empathize with a character they don’t particularly understand.
Astrid’s mother Ingrid is even more difficult to comprehend. She is the most selfish and uncaring maternal figure I’ve ever encountered in literature. Astrid relates tragedy after tragedy to her mother, and receives in return cryptic, poetic letters commanding her to savor her pain, as it will make her a stronger artist. The reader quickly learns that this perplexing reaction is typical of Ingrid Magnussen, though one would be hard-pressed to figure out why. There are two reasons Ingrid is a difficult character to interpret. First, as stated before, the reader does not really understand the narrator, Astrid. Second, Astrid does not really understand her mother. The reader’s interpretation of Ingrid, a central character in this novel, is then hopelessly unreliable.
Another reason White Oleander makes for painful reading is that Astrid is subjected to a horrific series of abuses at the foster homes she is placed in. She is shot by her foster mother in one home, starved in another, and attacked by dogs in a third. The reader feels protective of Astrid, but can neither save her from mistreatment nor keep her from inexplicably making the decisions that place her in these situations. In the end, the reader is forced to swallow the idea that this abuse did not permanently harm Astrid, but only made her stronger. This is an incredibly optimistic view of things at best.
Of course, there’s a lesson to be learned in the book. Actually, Astrid learns a lesson or two in each of the many foster homes she lives in. No need to worry if the lessons are a bit elusive: Fitch spells them out in the end of the novel in her neat and ultimately dissatisfying conclusion. The problem is that Fitch attempts to pen an ending that will please all, while seemingly ignoring the theme of survival in a cruel world that was prevalent in the rest of the novel.