Review: White Oleander

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This book isn’t new, so nothing I’m going to say about it is going to be novel or revolutionary by anyone’s standards. White Oleander has been on my TBR shelf for a considerably long time, and while I really really loved it, it took me an inordinately long time to finish. Usually I could blow through a book that size in a matter of days, but it took me over two weeks to read. I did want to savor it and really get to know the beautiful way Fitch writes, but I didn’t mean to savor it for so long that it just collected dust on my nightstand.

That said, I still give White Oleander 4.5 stars. It was a moving coming of age story about a girl finding her way out from underneath her overshadowing mother after her mother is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. We follow Astrid on the journey of her teenage years as she’s placed with foster home after foster home, only to outgrow the system entirely.

Astrid is a remarkable character, and she’s surrounded by other remarkable characters. Regardless of how you feel about them, every character makes you feel something. From Starr and Ray to Rena and Sergei, the entire book is filled with vivid characters brought to life by Fitch’s pen.

Ray and Astrid’s relationship was pretty difficult to read. Because it was so early on in the book, I wanted Astrid to succeed at Starr and Ray’s home, and I knew from the start that Ray would be lecherous. But it was also important to read because of how thoroughly Astrid got to know her own self and her own power as a woman, so I read past it.

Marvel was an interesting character, petty and racist and self-righteous. Olivia was far and away the more interesting part of Astrid’s stay at Marvel’s home, and I love how she took the bit of empowerment Astrid had extracted from her illicit affair with Ray and help Astrid shape it into her own brand of self-awareness and power.

When Astrid was placed with Claire, I was finally familiar enough with the tone of the novel to know that it wasn’t going to end well – one way or another. It broke my heart that the love and safety Claire gave Astrid was ripped away from her so tragically.

Astrid’s story didn’t do much for my already languished face in the foster care and ‘child protective services’ systems. I know her story was extreme, but it did highlight some of the extreme things that foster children really do face – rape (whether statutory or otherwise), lost identity, distrust, theft, neglect, abuse. Putting these things under the microscope of Astrid’s life really magnified how interruptive even a short stay in the foster care system can be.

That’s not to say that all, or even most, foster parents are like the majority of the caretakers in this book. But I have personally seen the system fail in some of the most outrageous ways possible, and it does make you wonder if there’s not a better way.

I highly recommend White Oleander.

Dates read: February 5 through 22, 2022

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