Book Notes: Janet Fitch’s White Oleander

Amazing, incredible news: this is a female Bildungsroman that I loved. Because it’s good. It’s very, very good. I’ve read dozens of these little bastards and completely despaired of finding a worthwhile one because the genre is just so formulaic.

One of the reasons I hate female coming of age novels is that there are no mothers. They are either dead or are patient, downtrodden victims of the patriarchy who only appear in the book to give the daughters a chance to reject their oppressed existence. I told you, it’s formulaic as hell.

Fitch, however, finally wrote a female Bildungsroman that is all about a relationship between a daughter and her mother. And it’s a very complicated mother who’s not a typical, formulaic victim but a murderer serving a life sentence and still maintaining an iron grip on her daughter. The daughter goes through a series of foster homes, and in each there is a woman who represents a facet of her mother’s personality: a pathetic sex addict, a vapid whore, a cold-hearted sadist, a tender, oversensitive creative type, a dumb foreigner. What makes a mother? What unmakes her? Why does having a mother not work if there is no father?

These are very important questions. And readers want this kind of book. White Oleander was a mega bestseller, promoted by Oprah, translated into every language. It was published in 1999 when American authors still wrote about the reality around them.

Since then, Fitch hasn’t written anything that sounds remotely interesting. She’s currently working on a multi-volume saga about the Russian revolution. The Russian revolution books of hers aren’t anything as successful as White Oleander but she keeps ploughing on. And if you read the novel, you’ll see why. Or just look at the recent Amazon reviews. The novel doesn’t conform to the official view of reality, so it can’t be good. Fitch managed to squeeze it in right before the iron gates of political correctness clanged shut on American art. The whole point of the novel is that a woman is not a man. She’s not a “construct” but a different biological reality. The novel also goes against the current dogma on sexuality and consent. And accusing it of “racism” would be a breeze.

Nobody writes anything worthwhile about today because you are going to get destroyed, so what’s the point? Instead, we get piles of novels about WWI, the Russian revolution, and year 1956.

As a funny aside, I visited Fitch’s blog, and it’s extraordinary how boring and conventional she is as a person. It never ceases to amaze me how completely shallow, uninteresting people can create art. The book is so much bigger than the author that it’s crazy.

Great, great book, and a wonderful conclusion to a beautiful reading year.

16 thoughts on “Book Notes: Janet Fitch’s White Oleander

  1. “Nobody writes anything worthwhile about today because you are going to get destroyed, so whatโ€™s the point?”

    I don’t agree at all. Nnedi Okorafor is amazing, for example.

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      1. Fantasy is about today’s reality, in a more palatable and interesting form. I don’t think it is possible to write in a fantasy world, The real world is always what the subject is, even if the author wishes it weren’t.

        Of course, the original fantasy is ancient mythology, as in Homer, Sophocles, et al.

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        1. When reality is made more palatable and interesting, it’s no longer a reality, it’s a fairy tale. Which absolutely has a right to exist, of course.

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          1. If being close to reality is the driving principle, why read fiction at all, rather than archives, direct reports, or, I don’t know, watch Tik Toks? ๐Ÿ˜€ They’ve got less layers of artifice to them than near anything literary, after all.

            While books can be used to sooth or to see, I don’t think you can tell in advance which it’s going to be just by genre.

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        2. Exactly. Oryx and Crake is ostensibly dystopian SF, but it’s about private corporations (particularly medical care companies) controlling the world for profit. It’s not fantasy, just speculation and a bit of hyperbole.

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          1. “fantasy was about an imaginary past, and sci-fi was speculation about the future”

            My rule of thumb is that anything set in the past or future is actually about the present (when it was produced).
            Even things that seem to be about myth making are really… about the present of the creator.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Definitely something to this. Lewis and Tolkien were veterans of WW1 thinking of a world before industrial war.

              Gibson who invented the term cyberspace in the 80s wrote at the dawn of the PC era.

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      1. Recently…

        Going with your advice, I read Nobody’s Fool, and I enjoyed it. Contemporary realistic fiction is not a genre I relate well to, as a rule, so it’s rare I even attempt those. I just finished Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and thoroughly enjoyed it.

        I really like Margaret Atwood as a writer, and find it deeply frustrating that The Handmaid’s Tale (which I thought was a dud) is the one book of hers that gets all the acclaim and notoriety. I read Oryx and Crake a while back, and while I would not say that I enjoyed it (one spends half the book in a state of profound discomfort), it is also totally mesmerizing, and I am now halfway through the sequel and equally engrossed by it. What all her books that I’ve read have in common is, I get two chapters in, I go “crap, I’m not going to like how this ends”, and then I have to finish the book anyway because I can’t put it down. And then I shake my fist and say “Margaret! You bastard!” And I still end up reading

        Lately, I love collections of Hilaire Belloc essays downloaded from librivox (thank you, Mark Smith of Simpsonville, for your wonderfully droll delivery!)– they are making my car rides delightful. I have very similar feelings about H.L. Mencken’s various collected essays and anecdotes– they are wonderful and hilarious and brilliant and if you only ever read one thing by Mencken, his account of attending the Democratic National Convention is worth the price of the whole Mencken Chrestomathy. But the tale of umbrellas and arc lights is a brilliant chaser.

        I’ll cut myself off there, so this won’t go on for ten pages. I have already deleted more paragraphs than I am posting ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  2. “White Oleander”

    It was made into a movie in 2002 which was… pretty good.

    The first five minutes of the clip below (Claire and Astrid visiting Ingrid in prison) is a mini-course in body language and verbal manipulation (there is a lot going on, it is an absolutely marvel).

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