Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review: White Oleander

Wow. This book. Oh my. When I first began reading this I was initially motivated by all of your strong and differing opinions about the story. But as I read more, the story itself was what compelled me to keep reading. In the end though, I have mixed thoughts about it. First though, a short synopsis. (Also, since so many of you have read the book or seen the movie, I'm not going to worry about giving away key details. So if you haven't read it and want to, be warned.)

Astrid Magnussen is the only child of beautiful poet Ingrid Magnussen. Ingrid's beauty and charm pull people in but it isn't long before they see her true personality. Ingrid is narcissistic, selfish and cruel. She's a woman who would sit for hours and write lists of ways to hurt people. (Spread a malicious rumor. Let a beloved old person's dog out of the yard. Suggest suicide to a severely depressed person. Tell a child it isn't very attractive or bright.) One of the people to quickly fall under Ingrid's spell is Barry Kolker and the two begin dating. When Barry attempts to break the relationship off, Ingrid starts harassing Barry-breaking into his home, destroying possessions, and eventually murdering him with the poison from the white oleander.

Ingrid is imprisoned for murder and Astrid gets shifted from foster home to foster home where various despicable things happen: a sexual relationship with a fifty year old man, performing sexual acts for marijuana, getting shot by one of her foster mothers, being starved by another foster mother, etc. Eventually Astrid is placed in a home with ex-actress Claire and her husband. Claire encourages Astrid to take honors classes and sign up for art courses at the local museum. Finally, Astrid is loved and doted on and just when she's starting to believe she may have a bright future, she's blindsided by Claire's suicide.

She's next sent to MacLaren Children's Center where kids go when, for whatever reason, they can't be placed in homes. The conditions are not much better than her past foster homes, but it's here where she meets Paul Trout, a like minded soul who she remains in contact with into adulthood.

Her next and final home before she turns 18 is with crazy Russian Rena Grushenka. Rena makes her living by fostering numerous teenage girls who all work together to cull things from dumpsters and various trash piles to later sell them at swap meets and flea markets. Rena has no intention of being a mother to any of the girls. Drugs and booze are everywhere and school is only an option, not a requirement. It isn't the best home, but Rena does provide a
certain amount of stability.

Through all these years, Astrid has remained in contact with her mom through letters and the occasional visit. She sees her as the cold and manipulative woman that she is. But now, right before Astrid's 18th birthday, her mother's new lawyer contacts her. She wants Astrid's help in getting Ingrid out of prison. Astrid has to decide whether or not to help. And if she does help, what impact will it have on her own future?

Okay. My thoughts. (So much for proper sentence structure. Excuse the fact that this is the most poorly written book review, but I read the book in about a week and the whole thing was kind of overwhelming and I just want to purge this book from my soul and move on. Sigh.) Anyway, I liked the book in that it was well written, the characters were interesting, and I wanted to see where the story was going to go and what would eventually happen to all the characters.

What I didn't like about the story was the cavalcade of bad things that kept happening to Astrid. After a while it felt gratuitous. (Eventually, it started to remind me somewhat of She's Come Undone, which is another book I didn't like for the very same reason.) It's not that I don't think that bad things happen to people, but I do believe that at some point you have to stop seeing yourself as a victim and I have little sympathy for people who repeatedly put themselves in situations where they can be victimized.

For instance, there was a turning point in the book where I stopped sympathizing with Astrid. It was when she was at MacLaren Children's Center and she was being interviewed by prospective foster parents. She could have chosen to go with a stable, older couple but instead she chose Rena because she was familiar with what Rena had to offer. This was where I stopped feeling much for Astrid because I felt at that point she was choosing to remain a victim. I know it sounds harsh but I have very little tolerance for that victim mentality.

Also, I didn't love the ending. I felt as if the last chapter was very rushed. We find out Astrid is living in Berlin with Paul Trout, but not much is said about how they got to that point. I felt like the author spent a lot of time and thought on the first 400 pages of the book and then slapped out the last 30 pages in a half an hour.

All in all, even though I didn't love this book and thought it was a downer, I'm glad I finally read it. It's one of those books that's popular enough that I should have an informed opinion about it. (As a side note, after finishing the book, I wanted to see if Daphne had blogged about it. I already knew that she hadn't loved the book and she and I have discussed our shared hatred of She's Come Undone so I wasn't at all surprised to see that she had already come to the same conclusion I had.)

Next up on the nightstand: Never Let Me Go


Daphne said...

Yes! Exactly! I read both She's Come Undone and White Oleander pretty close together and I really didn't like either of them. I liked White Oleander just a little bit more, but both of these books left me feeling BAD. I really didn't like either of them. It's like, whine whine, bad things happen, more bad things, more whining, sexual abuse, more bad stuff, then everyone dies (or wishes they were dead). No thanks.

Oh, but I loved Never Let Me Go. I can't wait to hear what you think of it. Kind of similar, actually, now that I think of it (bad things) but COMPLETELY different.

Tammie said...

i almost laughed out loud when i went over to your old blog and saw what you wrote. it was exactly how i felt, almost word for word.

im very excited about Never Let Me Go. jay actually requested it from the library for himself but i snatched it up. ;)

~ The Jolly Bee ~ said...

Oh -- I read "She's Come Undone" a while ago. I'm pretty sure I liked it. (Remember -- it was a while ago and there have been a lot of books in between). I've never read WO, and I'm not sure it's a genre I want to dive into at this point. You did a great job summarizing the plot....Have you ever considered writing Cliff Notes? I know some teenage students who would pay you handsomely for your service.

Run Lori Run said...

Yep, I had heard the same thing from others which is why I bypassed this book. Thanks for reaffirming my decision!

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

I never read this book because it was an Oprah book. I have only read 2 of Oprah books in full. One being She's Come Undone,about 10+ years ago, which I LOVED. Funny huh?
I did watch this movie though and didn't care for it. Michelle Pfeiffer is always good but I just don't care for the subject matter. 1/2 way through I didn't much care about anyone.

I must have amesia about She's Come Undone because I don't remember it as whining or being a victim or bad things constantly happening. I may have to go read this one again.

Dani said...

I didn't like She's Come Undone at all.

It's been a good 4-5 years since I read White Oleander. I remember liking it OK. But it wasn't earth shattering. It was one of those books that's easy to read, keeps you interested while reading it, but when it's over you don't give it much thought.

Was it you that mentioned wanting to read We Need to Talk About Kevin? Now that's a book that f'd me up and that I still think about.

Bridge said...

i loved this book!

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

have you named your pet red squirrel?