By Sophia Schoepfer
White Oleander chronicles the journey of Astrid Magnussen through the labyrinthine realm of 1990’s Los Angeles. Her mother, Ingrid Magnussen, is a poet, fixated with the pursuit of beauty. A capable, dangerous woman, Ingrid mentors her daughter with droplets of philosophy, explaining, “We are the wands...we strive for beauty and balance, the sensual over the sentimental” (Fitch, 3). However, when Ingrid becomes enamored by an unlikely suitor, her calculating behavior disintegrates, like barbed wire turned to Baby’s Breath. Unfortunately, Ingrid’s love is unrequited, and she seeks a poisonous revenge, resulting in the murder of her past-lover. Having committed a crime of passion, Ingrid is locked away and her daughter is left, abandoned. Suddenly, Astrid must fend for herself in a savage metropolis. Shipped around the area, to places like West L.A, Tujunga, and Van Nuys, Astrid encounters much hardship, and leaves each foster home with fresh scars, both physical and emotional. The myriad of foster homes within White Oleander contribute fragments of motherhood toward the ragtag collage Astrid is left with in her abandonment.
The novel broaches the matters of mother-daughter relationships, self-reflection, survival of the fittest, perfection versus imperfection, and the nature of artistry. Above all, White Oleander is a young girl’s bildungsroman. Adorning her adolescence, middle-aged lovers, hedonistic prostitutes, bloodthirsty hounds, “twenty-seven names for tears” (Fitch, 382), and her mother’s omnipresent poetry, Astrid’s encounters come to define her. In the end, she is left with baggage; heavy, tragic and wonderful.
About the Author:
Janet Fitch was born on November 9th, 1955. She is a third-generation native of Los Angeles. An undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Fitch’s initial passion was for History. However, at the age of twenty-one, she was possessed with the sudden urge to write fiction. Enrolling in a workshop at UCLA, Fitch was mentored by Kate Braverman, an accomplished novelist who demanded excellence from her pupils’ every sentence. Janet Fitch published White Oleander in 1999. The novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in May of the same year. Later, the novel was adapted into a film. Nowadays, Fitch teaches fiction for the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. She published the novel Paint It Black in 2006. Furthermore, her writing has appeared in literary journals such as Black Warrior Review, Rain City Review, and A Room of One’s Own. Currently, Fitch is working on her latest novel, which she plans to set during the Russian Revolution.
Interview by Helen Gallico - Mon 21 May 2012 - http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fulllist/first/en123/cwl-litcrit/whiteoleander/intro
"I read online that you had already used Ingrid as the protagonist of a short story, why did you decide not to continue to use her as the primary voice in a longer novel, or, indeed, White Oleander?
Ingrid is a natural antagonist, not a protagonist. She is someone without the potential for change, she doesn’t doubt herself, except at certain critical moments, and then, when the crisis is past, she 'snaps back' to the way she was before. She is a given, whole, herself.
Did you take inspiration from/research any particular poetry when writing Ingrid's poetry? You mention Dante and reference a wide range of other authors; did you read up on this in advance to decide what sorts of poetry Ingrid would have known about and liked? The poet who informed Ingrid's voice the most was Anne Sexton. I'm a huge Sexton fan, I hear [Ingrid's] tone very much like that. But no, I didn't read up or research these authors, I heard them, they're like music inside me. Ingrid was aware of the entire canon, she was an educated woman, it was all already there. I knew, I could feel, who she would be attracted to, who she would embody.
Was White Oleander to a certain extent a social commentary on 1990s California?
Among other things. Our society as a whole reflects the dislocation and fragmentation of the Los Angeles of White Oleander. Now even more than in the 1990's.
Why did you decide to base White Oleander entirely in Los Angeles?
I just started writing it, and it was enough to unpack what I knew about the city. It's a world of its own, and a world not often depicted in literary fiction.
Were you influenced by any writers in the overall creation of White Oleander?
I'd say. Dickens and Joyce - Portrait of the Artist and Oliver Twist - and Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book). Ingrid was Sei Shonagon in some very basic ways.
Would you call White Oleander principally a bildungsroman?
Absolutely. It was my Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl.
Do you think religion is important in the novel?
I think the problem of a human being's developing sense of fate and free will, of good and evil, of faith and despair, lies at the heart of the novel. Call that religion or philosophy or spirituality, it boils down to the same thing.
Would you describe the ending of the novel as a happy ending?
Absolutely. I think whenever a person can survive extreme hardship with his ability to love intact, with his compassion and some kind of faith in the future and an ability to act in the world, that's a happy ending. Whenever a person can transmute the lead of bitter experience into the gold of creative work, that's a happy ending.
Marshall Berman uses Karl Marx’s idea that “all that is solid melts into air” as a definition of modernity. Rapid destruction of the past to create the new is a prominent idea in modernity. How comfortably do you think, following this definition, White Oleander fits into the category of Modern literature?
If modernism is the rapid destruction of the past to create the new, Los Angeles is modernism itself. It's the place where the past only got a tiny toehold before it was ejected - where ideas of solidity and tradition come to die. White Oleander shows what it's like to live in this invented reality. We're all foster children in the modern world.
To what extent do you think capitalism is a key aspect of White Oleander? Was Rena being from Russia a deliberate choice to highlight the difference between capitalism and communism?
Well, capitalism is what makes it so difficult for an artist like Ingrid to live. It's why she's so stressed out. There's no other way to make a living than a minimum wage paste-up job. If society can be judged by the fate of the weakest of its members, the fate of children, an economically useless sector of society, capitalism is the necessary condition for such pressure on poor families and neglect of children.
Loneliness seems to be an occupational hazard in modern literature. Struggles to form close bonds is a given. Would you call Astrid, or indeed Ingrid, modern heroines?
Loneliness is the individual at odds with his society. As such, they are absolutely modern. Traditional societies co-opt the individual. There is no place for individual consciousness when the village needs to get the wheat in. For better or worse, they operate free from the patriarchy.
Does Astrid have one relationship in the novel that you would class as more important than the others?
The relationship with her mother, naturally is the most important. Her mother has both wounded her irredeemably and given her the strength to transcend those wounds. her attachment to Paul Trout, to a good kid her own age, is also extremely important. It's the only really healthy relationship she has.
What lessons can we take, today in 2012, from White Oleander’s 1999?
That as long as we can continue to love, no matter how bruised and beaten up we get, as long as we're willing to stick our hands out one more time to connect with another person, we've got a chance. Once we decide it's too dangerous to love another person, we're screwed.
What is the function of Astrid’s art in addressing the issues of modernity? Is it to challenge the consumerist, capitalist society by which she is surrounded, or is it her only method of clinging onto the remnants of her past?
Creating is by nature the opposite of consumerism, it’s the antidote. Astrid's art is the essential human act of turning the garbage of one's life into something that has meaning for the artist, and which communicates that meaning to others. Although everybody has to eat, the economic value of art is its least important function.
How does White Oleander engage with the tension between past and present?
In this I'm with Faulkner, the past is not over. The present is the pinpoint behind which masses the cumulative effect of the past.
Why do Paul and Astrid end up living in Berlin in particular?
Because Berlin is built on ruins, and so are Paul and Astrid. It's an artistic hub, and it's recently been reunited with itself. It's trying to reconcile the past and the present.
Would you describe White Oleander as a feminist text?
Yes. It's a book about women's lives, the way in which women influence one another, the way in which women offer a variety of images or 'role models', philosophies and ways of being, to girls, who then sort between them to find what's true for themselves."
Oprah's Cut - Janet Fitch (Audio Interview)
“Despite melodramatic plot twists, the foster homes provide a nicely eclectic panorama of late 20th-century American life and a revealing stage for Astrid’s growth and personal struggles. She’s an appealing protagonist, smart and vulnerable, though her formidable mother is even more intriguing, and the author brilliantly delineates the woman’s complexity through her letters, which are masterpieces of epistolary voice and character development. Fitch displays remarkable artistic and psychological maturity throughout, skillfully making use of metaphors (like the beautifully poisonous oleander, Ingrid’s signature flower) to illuminate her central theme: the longing for order and connection in a world where even the most intimate bonds can be broken in an instant. The author allows her protagonist to achieve adulthood, love, an artistic vocation, and some semblance of inner peace without scanting the scars she will always carry. Vigorous, polished prose, strong storytelling, satisfyingly complex characters, and thoughtfully nuanced perceptions: an impressive debut indeed.”
Kirkus Review - Feb. 15th, 1999 - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/janet-fitch/white-oleander/
“What keeps "White Oleander" from devolving into a television mini-series is Ms. Fitch's aptitude for delineating Astrid's inner life, for showing us the pull she feels between her mother (and her mother's destructive impulses) and her own need for independence; for showing us her craving for family and the slowly dawning recognition that she must invent herself. The resulting novel is frequently obvious and over the top but at the same time oddly haunting.”
Michiko Kakutani - April 30, 1999 - The New York Times - http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/25/daily/042999fitch-book-review.html
“There's something sickening about Janet Fitch's first novel,White Oleander (Little, Brown; $24), and it's not entirely intentional. Her premise certainly shouts melodrama: Ingrid, beautiful blonde poet, murders her ex; her beautiful blonde daughter, Astrid, is sent to a series of foster homes, dropping swiftly from the cultural elite to white trash. This is the kind of book in which, as soon as you meet Uncle Ray, Astrid's foster mother's boyfriend, you know there's going to be sexual abuse.White Oleander is a loosely stitched-together series of these worst nightmares: a mother who starves her young, a high-class prostitute, a suicidal fading actress, a tough-talking Russian flea-market hustler. Ingrid is the most monstrous and yet the most refined, like an Aryan vampire. Fitch's writing has trippy, visceral power, but the reader remains unconvinced that she hasn't just written this as an exercise in high-brow shock lit.”
Alexandra Lange - May 10, 1999 - New York Magazine - http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/books/reviews/1029/
Movie Trailer (2002):