The novel White Oleander started as a short story in which author Janet Fitch imagined the life of a woman whose only law is beauty, an aesthete, in modern society. Modern American society, which has very little patience for the arts or anything metaphysical. It was felt that by Fitch’s editor that Ingrid Magnussen, the aesthete in question, was too harsh and difficult to relate to. Ingrid was given a duaghter, a soft-focus lens to view her through, and thus Astrid Magnussen became the narrator of White Oleander.
The novel begins with twelve-year-old Astrid watching her mother descend into a passionate madness brought on by the end of a love affair. When Ingrid is sent to prison for exacting her revenge on a man who exploited all of her weaknesses, Astrid enters the California foster care system. The novel follows Astrid through a half-decade worth of homes, as she tries to piece together an idea of how to be a woman from fragments of her experience in each place and letters her mother sends from prison. The reader is with her as she explores faith, love, sexuality, motherhood, self-worth, self-preservation, expectation and sorrow.
Astrid is a dreamer, a visual artist. Observant and internal, which makes her rich as a narrator. Fitch does not write her as wise beyond her years, she begins the book very twelve (though a twelve clearly mothered by an extreme personality) and ends the novel a somewhat hardened woman at the end of her teenage years. I like Astrid as a female character because she endures: at the core of it all she is a survivor. Despite a tremendous range of suffering, she endures her odyssey and emerges with the capacity to both hope and love.
Astrid is far from perfect, she makes many mistakes over the course of the novel but eventually accepts it all as a part of what makes her who she is. She learns from many of her mistakes, and the ones she makes repeatedly she recognizes and owns. She is a strong character and woman, for all her wounds and flaws.
What’s more, I identify with her on a fundamental level. That’s probably why she is my favorite.
Note: The movie was horrifically bad. If you’ve only seen the film, please PLEASE pick up a copy of the book.