Ay yi yi! Just when I thought I have it bad, I read a story about a girl who has it worse.
Astrid is a young girl who lives with her mother, Ingrid in Los Angeles. Ingrid is an accomplished poet and an expert in the art of manipulation. When her romance with Barry Kolker goes sour, Ingrid poisons him with the leaves of the white oleander plant. She is tried, convicted and sentenced to life in the Chino Institute for Women, leaving Astrid to fend for herself in the LA County foster care system.
Astrid spends her adolescence bouncing from foster home to foster home. There never is enough time for settlement. Once Astrid becomes attached to someone, she is ultimately yanked away by fate.
We follow Astrid through five different foster homes, each with its own sad story. She survives attempted murder, sexual experiences, mistreatment, bigotry, and more disfunctional elements than one person deserves in a lifetime. Though the novel is fiction, I have a feeling that Astrid's experiences are actually the tales of real children in the foster care system.
What I enjoyed most in White Oleander was the accurate, detailed description of the physical Southern California setting. By the end of the book, I believed the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, late autumn brush fires and the white oleanders themselves were all characters in the story. I have lived here all of my life and could feel the hot wind. I could hear the oleanders blowing. (I actually read the book in a house surrounded by white oleanders.) I have also been to the Chino Institute for Women of a college field trip and felt like I was there all over again in this book.
White Oleander is more than just a sad story about a kid in forster care. It is a story about manipulation, love, distance, pain, and ways to escape all of the above.
I enjoyed the book and would recommend it, if asked. It is great for a library checkout, but I can't justify the $24 hardback price for a gift or personal collection.
White Oleander is not going to go down as "The Best Book of All Time." However, since Oprah waved her golden wand and granted it "Book Club" status, it will have a small place in literary history.