WHITE OLEANDER by Janet Fitch
Place of Purchase: barnesandnoble.com
Reading Began: July 2002
Completed Reading: July 2002
Overall rating: Eight out of ten
Recommendation to others: This is a spellbinding book with great emotional impact. The narrator, Astrid, speaks volumes (literally) about life, love and family, and you feel every moment of her pain. There is little joy in this story, but it resonates long after the last page is read. Skip the movie, devour the book.
Why I chose to read this book: Simply put, when a book is being made into a movie, and I have any interest in that movie, I always want to read the book first. That Oprah put her little “seal” on this novel is a remote coincidence and of no consequence to me.
Further reading by this author: none so far
Comments: This book put a true spell on me. I was captitaved by Astrid from the onset, and I was completely absorbed in the story the entire time. I think I read this book in a week or less. I just didn’t want to put it down. Astrid’s experiences are surreal, and yet she is somehow composed (for the most part) through everything. Or perhaps she’s simply numb? In a few short years, she faces more trauma than anyone should face in a lifetime, and she still seems to retain some semblance of sanity. I expect that this is how many children grow up in the foster care system, and I have a much greater respect for them after reading this book.
White Oleander is a gem, rich with emotion and teeming with horrid reality. My own emotions ran the gamut from tears of laughter to sharp stabbing pain to complete hollowness. But I felt, and that’s the masterpiece of the book.
Favorite Characters: There can only be the one… Astrid. She’s the entire book, its heart and soul. Since the movie was released, I am also partial to her boyfriend, Paul, but only because he was played by Patrick Fugit. Fugit gave Paul life that I didn’t see in the written character.
That year, I craved suitcases. … I was making altars inside them. Secret, portable museums. Displacement being the modern condition, as Oskar Schein liked to say. He kept wanting to buy one, but I couldn’t sell, though Paul and I were obviously broke. I needed them.
I was creating my own personal museum. They were all here: Claire and Olivia, my mother and Starr, Yvonne and Niki and Rena, Amelia Ramos, Marvel. The Musée de Astrid Magnussen. I’d had to leave everything behind at Rena’s when I went to New York to find Paul, all my boxes and souvenirs, everything but my mother’s four books and the jewelry I’d acquired, the aquamarine ring, the amethyst, and the stolen necklace, plus eight hundred dollars in cash. … The phoenix must burn to emerge, I kept thinking as I took a bus across the country with nothing but an address of a comic book store on St. Marks Place to steer by.
But now I’d assembled it again, my museum. There, against the wall, in this cold northern city, I’d re-created my life.
Here was Rena, a brown leather case lined in green-figured velvet holding a spread-eagled wax nude with a white cat head made in white bunny fur. The lid was lined with doll furniture and decorated in fanned phony greenbacks. Niki was an American Tourister glazed in magenta enamel, metal-flaked like a drumkit. Inside, it had knackwursts made from condoms stuffed with foam rubber. For Yvonne, I’d found a child’s suitcase and covered it in pastel blanket fuzz. Inside stretched guitar wire, and little baby dolls were tangled there. I was looking for a music box, so that when you opened the lid, it would play “Michelle”.
Marvel’s was turquoise, it opened to reveal white gravel stuck to the bottom, and a battery-powered flashlight signaling SOS in Morse code. One of our art student friends helped me wire it. Girl toy soldiers — free giveaways from an American movie — crawled on the moon rocks with their AK-47s. I’d painted tiny swastikas on their arms. There was a little TV screen in the lid, where a decoupaged Miss America beamed, her face dotted with clear nailpolish tears.
Starr and Ray shared a plastic cloth suitcase with cracked leather bindings, bleached tan with a faded plaid. When you propped it open, it released a heady scent of raw wood and Obsession. Against bright op-art jersey I’d crisscrossed strips of a Pendleton plaid. Inside the lid, a prom-pink satin rose uncoiled, richly vaginal, under a glow-in-the-dark Jesus. The edges were furred with wood shavings from a local cabinetmaker, poodle curly. The base held a tiny reliquary chest, filled with chunks of scrap lead. You couldn’t get bullets in Europe, I’d had to make do. In a glass terrarium on the bottom, a snake crawled over yellow sand, broken glass, and a half-buried pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
Like Berlin, I was layered with guilt and destruction. I had caused grief as well as suffering it. I could never honestly point a finger without it turning around in mid-accusation.
Olivia Johnstone was a hatbox covered in green crocodile plastic that released Ma Griffe when you opened it. Dagmar, the perfume counter girl at the Wertheim Department Store, let me wet cotton balls with the sample perfumes, which I stashed in film containers in my pockets. Inside, I’ve woven a nest of taupe and black stockings, which surrounded a Carnival mask of black feathers, and a beaker that held the white ocean. On its surface floated a gumball ring, also white.
They were all here. A lunchbox decoupaged in flea market postcards of fin de siècle aristocracy was the Amelia Ramos. Inside, antique forks thrust up through a mat of black wig hair striped in white. The forks looked like hands reaching out, begging.
And Claire. I built her memorial from a train case from the thirties, white leather with red patent trim. It cost me 50DM, but it opened to watermarked mauve moiré silk, like the grain in wood, like a funeral in a box. Inside the lid, I’d glued pieces of white-painted record vinyl to resemble the wings of butterflies. Each tiny cache drawer had a secret inside. A reticulated, miniature fish. A drawer full of pills. A strand of pearls. A fern fiddle. A sprig of rosemary. A picture of Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road. And in one drawer, twenty-seven names for tears. Heartdew. Griefhoney. Sadwater. Die Tränen. Eau de douleur. Los rios del corazón. It was the one Oskar Schein kept wanting to buy.
All my mothers. Like guests at a fairy-tale christening, they had bestowed their gifts on me. They were mine now. Olivia’s generosity, her knowledge of men. Claire’s tenderness and faith. If not for Marvel, how would I have penetrated the mysteries of the American family? If not for Niki, when might I have learned to laugh? And Yvonne, mi hermosa, you gave me the real mother, the blood mother, that wasn’t behind wire, but somewhere inside. Rena stole my pride but gave me back something more, taught me to salvage, glean from the wreckage what could be remade and resold.
I carried all of them, sculpted by every hand I’d passed through, carelessly, or lovingly, it didn’t matter. Amelia Ramos, that skunk-streaked b****, taught me to stand up for myself, beat on the bars until I got what I needed. Starr tried to kill me, but also bought me my first high heels, made me entertain the possibility of God. Who would I give up now?
And in a blue suitcase with a white handle, the first and last room of the Astridkunsthalle. Lined in white raw silk, edges stained red, scented with violet perfume.
I sat on the floor in the gathering dusk of a gray afternoon on the threadbare carpet splotched in paint by generations of art students. This was my mother’s time, dusk, though in Berlin winter it was dark by four, no timeless western twilights, surf on yellow sand. I opened the lid.
The scent of her violets always made me feel sad. The vial of tinted water was the exact color of the pool on Hollywood Boulevard. I sat in front of my mother’s altar and built a set of drawings on clear plastic, watched the disjointed lines come together, until they formed the image of her in profile. Letters tied in barbed wire nestled in the suitcase bottom along with a spread of tarot cards, the queen of wands prominently featured. A row of glass fragments hung from the lid, I ran my fingers along them so they chimed, and imagined wind through the eucalyptus on a hot summer night. Chapter 32, p. 380