White Oleander, or What I Secretly Call A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

 White Oleander, or What I Secretly Call A Portrait of the Artist as a Young WomanBuy White Oleander
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co
Format: Paperback, eBook, audio book
Author: Janet Fitch
Reviewer: Melissa on April 26, 2010
Rating: 3.5 out of 5


I really loved this book. Still I debated adding a review of White Oleander to YA Book Shelf because I worried that some readers would think that some of the incidents too mature for the YA crowd. If you want to know why I finally settled on posting this piece, then the short story is that Fitch has created a convincing and powerful portrayal of the tween and young adult voice as portrayed through the character Astrid Magnussen. For the long answer, keep reading….

As I so often hear in the blogosphere and twitterverse, it isn’t the content of a book that should set an adult novel apart from ya novels, but the voice and subject matter. WhiteOleander is told exclusively through Astrid’s perspective as she ages from 12 to 20. Toward the beginning, however, the tween voice is dominated by that of her rigid and overbearing single mother Ingrid. It’s clear that she hasn’t yet reached the point where she questions her mother’s actions. Even in these moments, you will see that the things Astrid dreams for are drastically different from what here mother does. The dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship slowly begin changing when Ingrid falls for the wrong man, and ends up in jail for killing her ex with a deadly brew of oleander and Astrid moves from foster home to foster home.

One of the key strengths of this novel is Fitch’s ability to show what happens to a child when her mother is unable to care for her any longer. With her mother in jail, survival is a lesson that Astrid needs to learn. And when I say survival, I mean just that. In each house that she is taken into, Astrid morphs slightly into the person that her new foster mother expects her to be. Astrid’s ability to shift and change to the situation is always accompanied by the motif of new clothing. At each house, she tests out new colors and styles, much like the changing skin coloring of a chameleon. There are more lessons and changes, but all this shows a realistic portrait of a young girl, who tries on a new idea of “the mother” whenever a new one is presented to her – some of them will fit better than others.

Perhaps it’s because I’m the type of person to think things more often than I’m willing to say them, but I have to admit that one of the big sells about Astrid’s character for me was her ironic interior monologue, that and her growing development as an artist. Some reviewers might classify this as a straight bildungsroman, or the novel of development. However, just as Astrid needs to learn to be a woman, she also needs to learn how to be an artist on her own terms, making it a künstlerroman.

Part of this development is shown through the reader’s unique perspective of Astrid’s point of view. Her ironic asides, which regularly question the status quo, are entertaining and insightful, including one in which (and I’m paraphrasing here) she says of Seventeen Magazine, “Where do they find all the pimpleless teens?” This statement comes after another character suggests that she’s beautiful and thus, shouldn’t have to worry about anything. For lines like this and the good pace of the novel as a whole, I believe that most older teens, especially those going through the foster care system or who have experienced a death or loss, will be able to see how someone else copes with their afflictions.

Some scenes may be too mature for young tweens and teens, but for those of us who are more mature, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander won’t disappoint!

Buy White Oleander today!

  6 comments for “White Oleander, or What I Secretly Call A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

  1. Jill
    April 26, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    I met that author very briefly in LA 2 weeks ago… but I haven’t read her book yet. Clearly the universe wants me to check it out.

  2. April 26, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    That’s really cool Jill. You must listen to the universe. It knows lots of stuff. : )

  3. Katie
    April 27, 2010 at 4:54 am

    I adore this book! I read it for the first time in I think.. 2006.. after seeing the movie. I loved it. It’s very intense but an amazing read. Your review for it is perfect!

  4. April 27, 2010 at 5:07 am

    Thanks so much Katie! I just read it for the first time, but I saw the movie ages ago…back in 2003. It really is, as you say, an intense but amazing read. :)

  5. April (Good Books & Wine)
    May 8, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Okay, first off, I am so excited I follow you on twitter and that you sent me your URL, cuz I think I am in love with your blog. It rocks out loud.

    Second, I have only seen the film version of White Oleander, but I do own the book. I actually really enjoyed the movie and definitely recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

  6. May 9, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks for your positive feedback about my site April!

    I’ve seen White Oleander as well, and I agree with you that it’s a great movie as well. However, I think that the book is better because it allows the reader to have a deeper understanding of Astrid and her motivations than is possible in the movie. If you have the book, then you should read it. : )

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