Audiobook Pick of the Month: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

32234Summary (from the publisher) When Astrid’s mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet, murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life, Astrid becomes one of the thousands of foster children in Los Angeles. As she navigates this new reality, Astrid finds strength in her unshakable certainty of her own worth and her unfettered sense of the absurd. 

Why I liked it: You know you’ve read a truly great book when you’re struggling with questions long after polishing off the last chapter. My lingering questions have to do with Ingrid. Are people born bad? Or are their personalities warped by mental illness? 

Next to Hannibal Lector, Ingrid one of the most frightening villains I’ve come across in a long time. She’s cold, manipulative, egotistical and completely devoid of empathy for others. She had no qualms about making Astrid aware of how burdened she was by motherhood, leaving her feeling about as wanted as a weed in a flower patch.

What was a weed, anyway. A plant nobody planted? A seed escaped from a traveler’s coat, something that didn’t belong? Was it something that grew better than what should have been there? Wasn’t it just a word, weed, trailing its judgments. Useless, without value. Unwanted.

And just when I thought this morally-blind character couldn’t get any more despicable – she’d take her narcissism to a whole new level! Just for shits and giggles, she would get her poetic juices flowing by writing a laundry list of horrible ways to torment people, like “give a homeless man fake money and make sure he thanks you profusely.” Or “convince a depressed person to commit suicide.”  Seriously?!?  Does this sound like a woman who is capable of redemption? I sincerely doubt it.

 I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that the book leaves a lot of things open for interpretation. Honestly, I wasn’t completely thrilled by the way it left off, but I have a feeling the author was compelled to give her readers what they wanted.

The narrator: I wasn’t so sure about listening to a book narrated by Oprah. No offense to Oprah, I just don’t like celebrity narrators. They tend to speak a mile a minute or overdramatize the voices like a parent reading a bedtime story. But you know what – she did a pretty good job capturing Astrid’s voice. I know she’s a busy lady, but it would have been nice if she took the time to read the unabridged book. I hate that she skipped over some chunks of this fascinating story.

Favorite character: Astrid is – by far – one of the most complex, sympathetic characters I’ve encountered.  Unlike her pathological mother, she looks for the good in people, and lacks that instantaneous disdain for others that so twisted her mother’s life. I was especially moved by her relationship with her emotionally fragile foster mom, Clare. Despite her own inner turmoil, Astrid wanted nothing more than to coddle Clare in a cocoon of happiness.  In a way, she was displaying the kind of unconditional love and support that she should have received from her own mother.

I wanted the world to be beautiful for her. I wanted things to work out. I always had a great day, no matter what.

Like listening to the perfect sad song on a bad day, this book has somewhat of a cathartic effect. Anyone who has grown up in a loveless household will identify with Astrid’s struggle. But ultimately this is a story about survival. Let’s face it; a lot of us get the short hand of the stick when it comes to parents. But once we get out from under their thumb, we have the freedom to chart our own destiny.  Astrid’s journey – from a naïve young girl, to a hardened foster kid, to a hopeful young artist –  is a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Summed up in three words: Dark, poignant, beautiful.

3 thoughts on “Audiobook Pick of the Month: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

  1. I had no idea Oprah narrated this book. Very interesting! I’ve had this one on my shelf forever. I’m doing better this year about reading books I already own so maybe I’ll pull this one off the shelf soon.

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