In creative writing workshops the first thing you learn is to “show instead of tell” your story. This applies to character, setting, scene, etc., and author Janet Fitch’s novel, White Oleander, is my go-to book for examples in doing this. She’s written a novel rich with sensory detail and prose so beguiling that you’ll end up with love for the hateful characters and hate for the loveable ones. I think it is well worth examining how she does this while making it seem so effortless.
That’s why I’ve chosen to examine Fitch’s character, Ingrid. Ingrid is the self-absorbed mother of Astrid. The story, in first person narrative is told by Astrid, and through her point of view we are able to bore into Ingrid’s character.
We meet Astrid at twelve years old. She adores her mother, yet without a lot of backstory we know her mother is not ideal parenting material. All the same, Astrid sees her as beautiful, almost painfully so, and therefore idealizes her to us readers. Over the course of the novel (spoiler alert), Astrid finds that her mother abandoned her at the babysitter’s while taking a year to try to sort out whether investing in a commitment, i.e., motherhood, was doable. She returns, reclaims her toddler, Astrid, and vows that they will from then on be inseparable despite Ingrid’s boyfriends and bad decisions. Ingrid is a bit delusional and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism—because how else could she totally ignore that she is basically homeless and holed up at a boyfriend’s pad, raising (term used loosely) a small child. Later, we see her in L.A. having achieved some semblance of stability, enjoying success as a poet, and beginning a relationship with Barry who has courted her persistently. Alas, Barry seems to be in-it to win-it and upon winning her, loses interest. She rages over his rejection and concocts an elaborate poison that kills him. She gets carted off to prison and Astrid ends up in foster care. Astrid spends years struggling with abandonment and her complicated feelings for her mother. She seeks normalcy among strangers, while Ingrid’s letters from a prison cell dog her with cold criticisms. The tension is riveting, and by Astrid’s third foster care fiasco you just want to strangle this ice queen who melts away her kid’s hopes so heedlessly.
Then there’s Barry. He illuminates Ingrid’s larger problem with power; the lack of it and compensation for it. So, by design, she inflates herself to enormous proportions and inflates conflict the same way. Barry becomes her conflict, the archetype of all men. “Men,” she said. “No matter how unappealing, each of them imagines he is somehow worthy.” This sentiment of hers repeats itself when she thinks she can get away with murder, literally (his murder). This attitude is why she is incredulous when Barry spurns her and even more incredulous when she’s indicted. She is blind to the consequences her actions have on Astrid, who is by necessity wiser than a twelve year old should be. With her mother set on a destructive path Astrid says, “She was drifting outside the limit of all reason, where the next stop was light-years away through nothing but darkness.”
On the surface Ingrid is hateful and you might think that she will get what she deserves; however, Fitch uses Ingrid’s emotional maelstrom to put readers in the place of feeling quite viscerally what she feels; that is, the injustice of being a woman. What happens next is essentially Ingrid’s misguided way of showing (even teaching) Astrid to level justice where it is absent and to reject a future shaped by men. Ingrid rejects a woman’s worth as defined by a man, which makes me think her rage is more against a system of patriarchal prerogative than Barry. The system has posed a threat to her agency, which in turn has robbed her of the power to exercise a “first-strike.” She is beautiful, blonde, erudite, and quintessentially believes she is entitled to it—to everything. Her methods are out of step with her message, but I believe her message is to instill a sense of pridefulness in her daughter (a take-no-shit attitude), which in itself could be construed as loving, albeit laden with baggage.
Locked away in prison, Ingrid writes words that disintegrate what remains of Astrid’s esteem. Astrid grows farther and farther away from Ingrid. One can only wonder what the hell Ingrid expected, but looking at the letters collectively and looking past the wicked rhetoric, you begin to see a frightened woman trying to “mother” from behind bars. Ironically, her brand of mother-love is poisoning Astrid. It’s controlling. It’s calculated. It comes across in the form of disparaging what Astrid holds dear. And for what it’s worth, Astrid sees this. She calls her mother out on it; naming it for the pure manipulation it is as Ingrid ensnares Claire (Astrid’s best chance at a permanent home) in a prison visit that will precipitate her end. This is a turning point in which Astrid severs herself from Ingrid’s toxicity. And Ingrid, to her detriment and I think dismay, becomes a recipient of some of the hatred she’s doled out.
Although Ingrid is physically absent from Astrid’s life, her influence is very present, and Fitch uses Ingrid’s letters to show the complexity of this mother/daughter relationship. The letters are an effective way to ensure that Ingrid is a protagonist second only to Astrid throughout the novel. Although mostly cruel, Ingrid dishes out good advice in her letters. For instance, she is the first to warn Astrid about dating the much older, Ray, and about the futility of loving Olivia, about the weakness in Claire, and about tamping down love’s ambition. Ingrid’s letters to Astrid were intended to protect her from the world, but backfire as Astrid decides she is better protected from her mother. Scant memories of a mysterious woman named Annie plague Astrid and the story climaxes when Ingrid, confronted with this ghost and that of Astrid’s father (both very much alive), is stripped bare. Her foibles are undeniable and she is made small by the eighteen year old Astrid’s claim to freedom. The end reveals what we knew all along; that is, Ingrid is pitiable to the point she needs the love she has driven away.
Note: this review is a reflection mainly on one character, Ingrid, but Fitch has filled White Oleander with a myriad of characters that are amazingly complex or at the very least, interesting. I recommend the book over the movie as is usually the case, and you might even enjoy Oprah’s performance on the audio version—I did—but be sure to follow along in the book, because the audio version is abridged and you don’t want to miss a single written word. Last but not least, enjoy the movie (it’s on YouTube). Despite the book’s details being lost in the medium, Michelle Pfeiffer elevates the viewing experience.