White Oleander by Janet Fitch
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.
I tried so hard to like this. I totally understood the message Fitch was trying to convey, and I really did enjoy the story in places, but I'm not entirely sold. My copy has a cover which has complimentary words such as BEAUTIFUL POIGNANT CAPTIVATING all over it; I don't agree with any of these.
The first thing I noticed about the prose, and the first thing that irritated me to such an extent I almost gave up reading after one chapter, was Fitch's love of the simile. Dear God, around ninety of them are thrown at you like grenades in the first chapter alone. This continues throughout the novel, along with other cringe worthy metaphors, and I was forced to skim over the more descriptive paragraphs to get to the real meat on the bones. In particular, Fitch's sex scene prose was mortifying; I certainly have never pertained sex to riding a horse through the surf. Oh dear.
Our narrator, Astrid, is simply ridiculous. She goes through assault, statutory rape, prostitution, near starvation and is shot without even batting an eyelid. Surely a young teenage girl would come away from all of that severely disturbed? This completely destroyed my trust in her as a narrator at a very early stage; I am more than certain any person in her position in life would not be as calm and collected as she was. She just didn't react the way you would expect her to. And this isn't because (as other reviews state) 'she's not your average teenage girl,'; this is because Fitch has written her with zombie characteristics.
The plot has some serious potential, but Fitch ruins it with her overly lyrical writing. The story is interesting in places, but soon becomes melodramatic. Any time Astrid settles somewhere, or starts to feel settled, Fitch throws something else at her. Think you're going out for a night time stroll, Astrid? Here are some rabid dogs that will chew your skin to shreds! Bitches get stitches! Come on, Janet, give her a wee break. Am I being too much of a princess thinking that terrible things like that don't happen to people as constantly as that?
Astrid's statutory rape was the most unbelievable part of all. She is fourteen when she is sent to her first foster home, and develops an obsession for her foster mother's boyfriend, who is in his forties. She ends up having sex with him, loves it, and craves more. She's fourteen, and this is ridiculous. Of course, we didn't have too much time to consider it, because before long Fitch sends the foster mother in to Astrid's room toting a gun, and a bang and a sore shoulder later, it's new foster home time.
It concerns me that young girls have and will have read this novel and found it fantastic. I certainly hope none of them take Astrid as a role model, particularly those in similar situations. This is a book disguising itself as literature, and I have no real idea how it came to be so well-known.