We recently read White Oleander by Janet Fitch in one of the graduate classes I’m teaching this spring, and I was so excited to fall in love with this story all over again. I read it slow and over a few weeks, and I found myself bewitched with the writing. Fitch’s prose has spells strung between the letters, and the attention to detail, the weight of the descriptions… honestly, I never wanted it to end, which is probably why I took my time with it.
We’re specifically examining mother and daughter relationships this semester, particularly in young adult fiction, and Astrid’s story, her journey to and rebellion from her mother, has always been one that’s stood out to me. There’s this complication between the two of them that builds like a fire, and while we should be afraid of it, we also can’t look away, and at times, we even find ourselves craving its warmth. Every time Astrid got a letter from her mother, I felt my heartbeat quicken. I was excited. I wanted to read her words and experience her mind even knowing what she did, what’s she’s capable of, and what she continues to do. I think Astrid felt the same, and even when she tried to distance herself, her mother called to her in her blood, in her dreams, in the stars.
White Oleander is a story about poison, but it’s also a story about learning how to find the antidote. As Astrid navigated the foster system, she met people who changed and shaped her for better and for worse. Some of these people were predators, some of them were her friends, some of them ignored her, treated her like a ghost. She learned to set boundaries the hard way, and when the past came knocking, she learned how to bury it and how to tell when it was time to dig it up.
The suitcase becomes a powerful symbol in this book, as does the oleander, as does the art of letter writing. It’s a book about traveling, shapeshifting, and identity, how sometimes we have to run away to find ourselves and sometimes, we just need to sit with our thoughts. It’s about regret, art, about learning how to trust, and knowing how to cover your scars. You’ll walk away with a TBR list and a new appreciation for poetry. Maybe you’ll take some photographs or try to astral project in your room, or maybe you’ll see constellations and find an appreciation for cashmere or a vintage perfume. I know after reading it, I sat in my bedroom and thoughts about the pieces of my life that were most valuable: what books I would take with me if I left, what pieces of jewelry, certain articles of clothes…
I remember first watching the movie version of this with my mom as a child and being taken with Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid, and as I rewatched the move the other night, I noticed that same pull. She is electric, hypnotic, and the more I study the archetype of the witch, the more I read this book as a lesson in divination, in spell writing, in herbalism, and curses. It’s about cause and consequence, how the line between maiden and mother is sometimes skewed by fate, by rage. I saw female anger and resentment, sifted through jealously, watched as women sold their bodies and their hearts to people who didn’t deserve them, all in an effort to gain power, to feel…something.
Maybe love. Maybe security. Maybe just so they wouldn’t feel so alone.
Because at the end of the day, the witch is alone.
Ingrid is in jail, but even when she’s not, the rules she makes for herself keep her segregated, away from emotion, always in control. Likewise, Astrid is lost, desperate to find herself, her place, somewhere—anywhere—she can feel and experience real love without the pull of strings, without sacrificing another piece of herself. Each chapter with them is a lesson, a hex, an invitation to meditate, to get involved. It shines a powerful light on matriarchal relationships, on the definition of family, and the trauma that can come from being pulled through the system.
To me, this story felt alive. It moved and breathed, and I felt like a participant, never a voyeur. It’s one I’ll likely come back to again, and I’ll be curious to see how my experience and identity shift alongside Astrid then.
Until then, I’ll keep checking the mail.
I give this novel 5/5 stars.