Janet Fitch’s thoroughly enjoyable White Oleander seems at first not much more than a guilty pleasure. Ingrid, a charismatic poet with a cult following of young bohos (her beauty, Fitch writes, “was like the edge of a very sharp knife”), poisons her lover in a fit of jealousy and is sentenced to life in prison. This leaves her 12-year-old daughter, Astrid, to navigate the maze of L.A.’s foster-care system until she turns 18 and is released. What saves this debut novel from reading like a TV-movie treatment (despite the unfortunate cover photo of a brooding young woman slipping out of her dress) is Fitch’s kaleidoscope of well-drawn characters and her fluid and sensual language, at turns haunting and heartwarming.
Astrid’s journey through five homes offers a domestic panorama peopled by her various foster parents, from the well-off wife of a TV producer who shops at Chalet Gourmet, to a hardened Russian immigrant who scours dumpsters for household goods. A third-generation Angeleno, Fitch firmly anchors the novel in this metropolis, from the concrete, culturally barren streets of Hollywood to the rural outskirts of Chino, where the women’s prison is tucked away. Her descriptions of urban poverty and the warm Santa Ana winds that sweep through the city evoke an L.A. that is part noir, part post-apocalypse.
While it moves at a pace fit (conveniently) for Hollywood, the story falls back on a simplistic structure that feels somewhat forced. The catalyst propelling Astrid’s move from one home to the next is always a random, disastrous event: a jealous gun-toting guardian, a vicious dog attack, a suicide. Yet as Astrid develops into a powerful character in her own right, her desire for self-discovery and sheer will to survive drive the narrative.
Though escapist — in effect, if not intent — White Oleander is crafted with an insight and grace that elevate it above mere “beach fiction.” Fitch’s hypnotic voice offers an honest and oddly seductive vision of L.A.