By Tyler Solorio
When I read White Oleander by Janet Fitch, it was out of a request I had put up on my Facebook wall about wanting some suggested reading, I decided I would read whatever title was suggested to me – well as long as I consider the person credible, I would. I’m usually the kind to read science fiction and fantasy, but when Fitch’s book was recommended by a friend and backed by a few bookstore friends, I went ahead with buying it. It stayed on my Kindle for a long time and as I had begun to finish my reading list, I decided to start into White Oleander. What happened between the book and I was an unexpected love story.
Being an employee of places like Borders and Barnes and Noble for an odd number of years, I was use to making off-handed comments about things like Oprah’s book club with fellow coworkers; with Janet Fitch however, I found my workplace jokes unwarranted. White Oleander is a coming of age story following a girl named Astrid, who finds herself tossed into a series of unfortunate living conditions due to being separated from her crazed mother, Ingrid. I thought the coming of age stories were a thing overdone, but Fitch illustrates a harsh, remarkable story, refusing to hold anything back to make it appropriate for a general audience. Within the first few paragraphs, I was entranced by her writing style, unsure of where the story was going with its vague beginning, but I was more than in love with where it took me. From Astrid’s experiences in trying to find a place where she feels like she even remotely belongs to Ingrid’s existence as a distant antagonist, a poet whose madness went too far, I was obsessed to see where the story lead. There were so many lines that I felt accurately described my feelings on of loneliness, describing the pain with words that I had never been able to find. The way Fitch allows the reader to explore each character as an individual through the story is refreshing.
I feel like there are many stories that hold back or hint at the gritty experiences of childhood that some live through and here we are faced with an unexpected and flawless prose portraying these traumatic events. This is one of those stories that you are rooting for a character to survive; in the same way you may for a hero in a story of zombies or of the apocalypse, but in the realistic setting of our own backyard. Our heroine is fighting a battle against the environment she had no control over with her fate in the hands of the system, through no fault of her own. There are things as unforgiving as creatures that go bump in the night and Janet Fitch reminds us that it can be anything: a romance gone wrong, a dysfunctional family, or a foster system that rolls the dice for wherever your fate may lie.
Between the writing style, the well-developed characters, and the quotes that I find myself repeating in my head, I can’t thank the friend who recommended this book enough for the pleasant surprise. In a time when I needed to be able to relate with something about my own pains, this piece had stumbled across my path, elaborating on what it means to survive and be a survivor, that as harsh as the truth was, the ability to recognize the truth could save you. Ingrid, who as an antagonist is easily hated, makes arguments that hit hard and are honest. There is something to be said about a person you can hate even when you relate to the message they voice. It is a beautiful woven works that I felt related to me like a friend who shared similar experiences would. If you’re searching for depth, a story that stands out on its own, something that can be appreciated for its writing along with its content, give it a look. From being a random title I would’ve never sought on my own to being one of my favorites, this was an amazing step outside of my usual readings. I leave you with line of White Oleander to sample, and a request for some of you to share a similar experience you had with a book, your review of this book if you’ve read it, or a book you think I should read, it just might make it to my next installment of Pleasantly Surprised.
“I know what you are learning to endure. There is nothing to be done. Make sure nothing is wasted. Take notes. Remember it all, every insult, every tear. Tattoo it on the inside of your mind. In life, knowledge of poisons is essential. I’ve told you, nobody becomes an artist unless they have to.”