Being the only child of a single parent is a very unique position. This parent is often the child’s sole refuge, and the child is often the parent’s only anchor to a life that would otherwise be free of external obligations and responsibilities. Many parents are loving enough that, despite any personal or financial struggles, they never make that child (who is often very attune to the environment around them) feel like a burden or chore. But there are simply some parents whom, despite having children, can only think of themselves first, last, and always. In White Oleander, we explore the lasting damage that a mother like this inflicts on her young daughter.
Astrid Magnussen’s mother, Ingrid, constantly drops the parenting ball. At her best, Ingrid crosses emotional boundaries, treating her 12-year-old daughter like an adult friend and confidante, and at her worst, she grossly neglects the child, who has a very vivid fear of abandonment at the hands of a mother who seems to always have something else she’d rather be doing than raising a child. Ingrid is her shy daughter’s only friend, but her affections for Astrid are incredibly fair-weather. Though Astrid admires everything about her mother from her appearance to her talent as a successful poet, Ingrid is only truly interested in her work and her occasional lovers. When the latest lover, Barry Kolker, cheats on and dumps Ingrid after relentlessly pursuing her, neither her heart or her ego can stand the rejection and, always thinking of herself first, Ingrid artfully crafts a revenge that doesn’t even take her daughter’s welfare into consideration.
After Ingrid’s arrest, readers are pulled into the mercurial waters of Astrid’s new life as a ward of the state of California, as she bounces from one traumatic foster home to another. As Astrid endures everything from physical abuse, sexual grooming, molestation, and exploitation, starvation, and various forms of domestic violence, Ingrid maintains a false innocence that ensures her daughter will never be free of her, never free to live her own life and grasp her own happiness. Over the course of five years, Astrid changes dramatically from the sweet, deeply sheltered girl Ingrid knew into a young woman hardened by pain and loss. When Ingrid finally faces the great toll that her selfishness has taken on her daughter, she is forced to make a decision that could permanently alter the course of Astrid’s life.
White Oleander is stunning in so many ways. Told as a first-person narrative by our protagonist, Astrid, the book pulls readers into the various shifts of Astrid’s life as she goes from physical certainty but emotional instability of her narcissistic mother, to the physical uncertainty but relative emotional predictability (for better or for worse) of her numerous foster parents. We taste every morsel of the most bitter pain, deep regret, and slivers of happiness that Astrid receives during her tenure in these foster homes. In her interactions with her incarcerated mother, we see how (first in her desperate desire for to be reunited, then her fervent need to be released) Astrid is more of a prisoner than Ingrid could ever be. White Oleander is a beautiful, albeit painful, study of how dangerous it can be to love someone whose presence in your life is a dead weight when all you need is a life jacket.
I give this one 4.5 stars.