White Oleander is not the usual mother-daughter novel. After Ingrid Magnussen, a stunningly beautiful poet with hair so blond it seems a white flame, dispatches a faithless lover with poison from the fatal white oleander bush, her twelve-year-old daughter and narrator Astrid finds herself adrift as a ward of the state of California. The bohemian world of beauty and art that her mother has inhabited fails to prepare Astrid for her encounters with a Dickensian array of unsuitable foster families.
In a novel illuminated by the seasonal fires of the Santa Ana winds, Astrid refashions her identity with each new foster home, becoming in turn nymphet, servant, rich girl, and junk dealer. At last she encounters Claire Richards, a fragile actress who loves and truly cares for her, but Astrid is unable to protect Claire from her mother Ingrid’s jealousy.
Self-absorbed and histrionic, Ingrid continues to dominate her daughter’s life even from prison, but inevitably the balance of power shifts from mother to daughter. The ambivalence of their dysfunctional relationship intensifies through the years as Astrid, like the oleander, struggles to grow and survive, finding her own strength at last. Rejecting the words that have made her mother famous, she emerges as a talented visual artists in her own right.
Janet Fitch’s prose is filled with sensuous detail and brilliant images. Although the episodic plot follows the adventures of Astrid, a reader is more likely to be intrigued by the treacherous Ingrid, who with her uncommon beauty and amoral nature remains the poisonous flower at the heart of this novel.