Warning: this essay is going to compare the book “White Oleander” with the movie “White Oleander” and will spoil the living shit out of both. If you have not watched the movie/read the book, stop reading this essay right now and watch the movie/read the book. I would recommend the book over the movie, but the movie is fine as well.
As wonderful as this essay may be, it's not nearly as good as reading ”White Oleander” or watching the movie. Don't cheat yourself.
This essay is also 8800 words long. You have been warned.
“White Oleander” is about Astrid Magnussen, a young girl (she is 12 when the book opens) whose mother Ingrid kills her lover and is caught and sentenced to prison for it, leavin Astrid to languish in the California foster care system for most of her teenage years.
If this sounds like a Lifetime Channel tearjerker movie to you, I don't blame you for thinking so. It definitely has the form of a Lifetime tearjerker, but it's very different in its focus and intent, and it ignores the conventions of the genre completely.
White Oleander is more of a coming-of-age story, but it's a very unconventional coming-of-age story. Astrid must deal with the various foster families she lives with while in the foster care system, and the events that occur as she does so. And most of all, she must deal with her mother Ingrid, who is a domineering bitch. Many reviewers have called Ingrid a narcissist and a sociopath, some even going so far as to say she is a narcissistic sociopath, and certainly she's a narcissist, though I don't believe she's a total sociopath. Certainly, she's close enough for hand grenades and horseshoes. But there's an alternate interpretation of Ingrid that I think is more interesting than just labeling her a sociopath.
When we first meet Ingrid and Astrid, they are living in Los Angeles. Ingrid is earning her living as a paste-up artist for a movie mag called ”Cinema Scene,” making $8 an hour, a near-minimum wage even in the late 1980s. Barry Kolker, one of the movie movers and shakers who shows up in the pages of “Cinema Scene,” is dating one of the editors at the magazine, and he spots Ingrid.
Very shortly thereafter Kolker has dumped the editor and is pursuing Ingrid. That's because Ingrid is ravishingly beautiful. “Every girl thinks her mother is the most beautiful woman she has ever seen, but my mother was the most beautiful woman anyone I knew had ever seen,” Astrid says in the book. Michelle Pfeiffer was cast as Ingrid Magnussen, and she is a dead perfect in the role.
Ingrid and Astrid's beauty is an important plot point, actually. They are beautiful, and they are very aware they are beautiful. In fact, Ingrid is snobbish about her beauty. She does not like people who are not as attractive as her and criticizes them for their looks very freely.
Astrid is not yet the beauty her mother is, but she's well on her way, and in the same cool Scandanavian blond way. And she is very conscious of how she looks to other people, and uses her looks to her advantage at times.
Ingrid works as a paste-up artist but in her free time she is a poet and artist, creating poems and art projects. She gets her poems published by the sort of publishers that publish poems, and her art projects show up in the sort of galleries that show art projects. She's fairly successful but it's definitely a niche market and there's no money at all in it … hence her $8 an hour paste-up job.
Ingrid is a raging narcissist, and she has nothing but contempt for people who are powerful but do not measure up to her scale of beauty and artistry.
Barry Kolker doesn't measure up on either count. He's older, overweight, and a bit of a pig. But he pursues Ingrid while Ingrid mocks him thoroughly to Astrid. She eventually dates Kolker, and falls for him despite his total unsuitability from her aesthetic point of view.
A cynical man might suspect that she allows herself to fall for Kolker because he's wealthy and shows her the good life, something that her past lovers have done, though those lovers were handsome and aesthetically pleasing to Ingrid.
Countering that notion we have the fact that Ingrid is not at all interested in things like fine meals, except perhaps for their aesthetic elements. Astrid recalls that Ingrid could eat nothing but peanut butter for days on end without even appearing to notice it. (Astrid does not give us her feelings on the matter of eating nothing but peanut butter for days on end, but given that it's a childhood memory, I bet it stuck with her for a reason.)
Ingrid is entirely focused on the aesthetics of her life, and she feels that the hardships she encounters as an $8 an hour pasteup artist and single mother are the attempts of the world to break her and her daughter's spirit. She often reminds Astrid of their Viking heritage, that they came from people who slew their gods and hung their body parts from trees.
That's how Ingrid sees herself and her daughter, as beautiful, heroic Vikings struggling to maintain their standards in a world that has no appreciation of them, except perhaps for their beauty, which is unattainable by most.
Kolker starts ghosting a bit on Ingrid, and she suspects something is up, so she drives out to meet up with him at his apartment, leaving Ingrid in the car.
The meeting goes fabulously at first. Ingrid and Kolker make love. But then Kolker throws Ingrid out, saying she has to leave because he has a date arriving soon.
Now that is cold.
But there's a risk to being cold, Kolker learns. Ingrid conceives a deep and aesthetic hatred for Kolker. Ingrid's hatred leads her to stalk Kolker and harass him, breaking into his house and erasing all the data on his 1980s PC, finally culminating in murdering Kolker with the juice of the white oleander. The white oleander is a plant that has significance to Ingrid because it is a hardy desert plant that can thrive where other plants can't, but still puts out beautiful, waxy white blossoms … and of course, it's deadly poisonous. It's a very aesthetically pleasing murder, you can see how Ingrid couldn't resist it.
And that's why the simple sociopath label is a mistake. it makes it too easy to gloss over all the character development that led Ingrid to murder Kolker. I think a large portion of Ingrid's motivation for murdering Kolker was wounded pride from being rejected by Kolker after relaxing her standards so much for him.
And possibly I'm reading too much into it, but perhaps one of the reasons Ingrid relaxed her standards for Kolker was that she was interested in settling down with him. She knew very well that she was beautiful, and that she was capable of attracting almost any man she wanted to, in fact, she frequently attracted men she was not particularly interested in attracting – like Kolker, initially. And when Kolker dumps her, it's an even more powerful denial for her.
Well what with all the stalking and break-ins, it doesn't take the cops long to figure out who killed Kolker, and Astrid wakes up one morning to see Ingrid being hauled away by the cops in handcuffs. Ingrid yells to Astrid that they can't keep her and she'll be back in a few hours.
Astrid can't believe what's happened. She knew her mother had murdered Kolker, but she never dreamed she be jailed for it … that was the sort of thing that only happened to less refined, less attractive people. Making it worse is that Astrid absolutely adores her mother. Like the child she is (she is 12 or 13 when the murder is committed) she has uncritically accepted her mother's view of herself and the world.
But Ingrid does not return, instead, after a day or two, Child Protective Services finally comes to the apartment, where Astrid has been keeping vigil for Ingrid. She's told she has 15 minutes to pack all her things, then it's off to the CPS processing center.
Astrid gets placed in a foster home presided over by the mother, Starr, an ex-stripper who still dresses to reveal her ripe body. There are also two boys in the home, and a girl slightly older than Astrid, Coralee, who is Starr's natural daughter. There's also Ray, a carpenter who is married to a woman he hasn't seen in five years and is Starr's boyfriend.
Starr is an ex-alcoholic thanks to some recently acquired devout Christianity. She buys clothes for Astrid and pretty soon has her baptized, which does not exactly make Astrid a devout Christian. But as she tells Peter, the older of the two boys whom she has taken a liking to, it's good to have something to believe in. One gets the sense that Astrid has adopted Christianity as a fall-back position, a bit of safety given that her mother's philosophy does not seem to have worked out.
This is a recurring theme of the book, the way Astrid learns from and adapts to the various families she lives among.
Starr's family is mostly nice people, and Astrid finds them comfortable people to live among. Uncle Ray, as Starr's boyfriend is called, takes a friendly interest in Astrid, and teaches her to play chess, which she really enjoys -- it's an echo of the aesthetic life with her mother.
Eventually Astrid finds Ray very attractive sexually, and she knows Ray finds her attractive, too, having inherited her mother's ability to use her beauty and to be aware of its effect on other people.
Meanwhile, Astrid gets a letter from her mother, who has been sentenced to 35 years to life in prison for murdering Kolker. Throughout her time in foster homes, Ingrid and Astrid correspond, maintaining their bond though Astrid become less and less happy about her mother over time, and with good reason.
Ingrid is amused by Astrid's new clothing but she is incensed when she learns that Astrid has been baptized and gone Christian, as she feels it is a repudiation of her violent Viking beliefs. This tension between Astrid and her mother over the new ideas and lifestyles Astrid encounters is a running theme in the book that eventually leads to tragedy.
Astrid and the other kids are allowed to visit the library, and in the library she finds a book that really fires her mind up: a survival guide. You know, one of those books that recount how shipwrecked sailors on rafts survived for weeks and months on end by drinking the dew from the masts of their boats, that sort of thing. When Astrid encounters adversity, and she'll encounter a lot of it, she goes back to this book, thinking of the privations people has endured to encourage herself to endure her own privations.
This is the key to understanding Astrid, I think. Her life prior to Kolker's murder was wasn't your typical middle class life, but her mother whom she idolized was (almost) always there, caring for her. That life was wiped away in an instant, when the cops came for her mother. Astrid sees Starr's family as a raft she is on after her old life foundered, and she must do whatever she can to survive.
But even in survival mode, Astrid wants a little goodness from life. The particular bit of goodness she wants is Ray. She knows Ray is attracted to her, and she is attracted to him, mostly for his goodness and kindness and maleness. He is far from attractive: slightly overweight, three fingers missing, he's very much a regular guy, but a nice regular guy. I pictured him as a buffer, tanner version of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, maybe a little younger, too.
Ingrid divines from Astrid's letters that she is attracted to Ray and is, of course, incensed. “Never lay down for the father!” she declares. She doesn't tell Astrid she's to young at 14 to have sex, no she just tells Astrid not to have sex with Dad. Which is good advice. Which Astrid does not take. Astrid is not at all swayed by her mother's command, she is more concerned with the fact that sleeping with Ray is counter to traditional morality. Ray is Starr's man, the woman who has taken her in, and it's wrong to steal him. Astrid knows that. But still, she wants Ray, and it's Ingrid's Nietzschean “Do what thou wilt” that Astrid finally goes with. She manages to be alone with Ray in one of the houses he is building and makes her move. With her mother's beauty and sexuality, even young as she is, Ray doesn't resist her when she makes her move, and soon they are sexually “breaking in” rooms in unfinished houses all over Los Angeles.
Starr gets wind of the attraction between Astrid and Ray and threatens to call Child Protective Services, but Astrid dissuades her by pointing out that it might make Ray angry if he thinks she has thrown Astrid out, and by swearing she is not attracted to Ray -- straight-up lying.
Starr starts drinking shortly thereafter, and not too long after gets into a drunken rage and grabs Ray's 38 caliber pistol and perforates Astrid with a bullet. Ray drags Starr off and the older son calls 911 and patches Astrid up, saving her life, but leaving the family destroyed.
Astrid of course is overwhelmed with guilt, feeling that she has inherited her mother's poisonous sexuality. Like a kid, she thinks everything is all about her. She's guilty of taking Starr's man, true, but she never even considers that Ray should have been enough of an adult to refuse to have sex with her. Or that Starr should not have taken up drinking. Or that Starr should not have shot her. No, it's all Astrid's fault, in her mind … she's still 14. It's all about her dangerous sexuality, you see.
The one consolation Astrid gets is letters from Ingrid in which she expresses her grief and fear when she learns that Astrid has been shot and might not make it out of the hospital, and then her relief and joy when she learns that Astrid will live.
When Astrid gets out of the hospital, her next foster home is Marvel Turlock's. Astrid describes them as “my first real family” and by that she means thoroughly middle class, with the father a nebbishy sort, and the mother, Marvel, is a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman. Marvel, a dour and domineering woman, mainly wants Astrid to function as a maid and domestic assistant, roles which Astrid adapts to readily, still in survival mode. Meanwhile, there is school, where she does well, her mother having done a really good job of educating her in everything except math.
While surviving in Marvel's home, Astrid becomes curious about Marvel's next door neighbor, Olivia Johnstone, a beautiful black woman who is gone much of the time. She hears Marvel describe Olivia as a “nigger who thinks she is better than us with her nice cars, but we all know how she makes her money -- flat on her back.”
This of course pique's Astrid's interest big time, and shortly thereafter she has finagled her way into Olivia's life and they become friends. Olivia it turns out is a high-class courtesan sort of prostitute, a well-educated former professional with lots of wealthy clients who pay her very well to be their arm candy and mistress as occasion demands. Soon she is taking Astrid on trips to Rodeo Drive to go shopping with her, and introducing her to a very different lifestyle than she has experienced with Ingrid, Starr or Marvel.
Astrid of course wants to try out this prostitution thing, and she has also been wanting to smoke some pot (Ray smoked pot, and shared his pipe with Astrid during their special times together. Ray was a nice guy, but careless in many respects, which may be why he lost his first family.)
She knows some of the bad boys at school smoke pot, as she walks past them on her way home, and stops by and makes a deal with the dealer of the bunch, sucking his cock in exchange for a baggie of pot. She found it not at all exciting to suck the boy's cock, nor did she find it particularly horrible or disgusting, but she liked having the pot. (Granted, Astrid's experiences up to that point had given her very tough standards for horrible and disgusting.)
And speaking of horrible and disgusting experiences, when Astrid is out jogging one evening, she's severely mauled by a group of neighborhood dogs, sending her to the hospital once again. This is probably the most blatantly bad plotting in the book … it drops into the story out of nowhere, and goes nowhere. I'm just mentioning it because it's a major event in Astrid's stay with the Turlocks. I think Fitch might have stuck it in there just to have something physically horrible happen to Ingrid during her stay with the Turlocks.
When Astrid tells Olivia about her little foray into prostitution, Olivia says, “That's not what I meant,” which I think means that she doesn't think that sucking boy's cocks for pot is not the way to become a high-priced courtesan. But Astrid likes the pot so she keeps at it, having no other way to get pot.
Ingrid is pissed when she learns that Astrid has made friends with a prostitute, and advises her to run from away from the woman because she is a tool of the Powers That Be and that Astrid will learn nothing from her but how to be used by the Powers That Be. Astrid is unpersuaded … perhaps because her mother, having destroyed her own family with her sexuality and gotten herself a 35 years to life prison sentence to boot, has very little credibility with Astrid on the topic of handling sexuality or anything else.
Eventually, and it's very eventually, Marvel gets wind of Astrid's hanging out with a prostitute, pot smoking and such, and calls the cops down on Olivia and then calls Child Protective Services. So it's off to a new home for Astrid.
Astrid is pretty sick about it. Life at the Turlocks was dull but stable, other than the occasional mauling by dogs.
Astrid's new foster mother is Amelia Ramos and life under Amelia's care is very stable, too, except for one thing. Ramos has about half a dozen young charges, and she was making good money from CPS for fostering them, so to maximize the money, she starved them. Not to death, just enough to keep them able to move and function. But undernourished enough that it affects Astrid's academic performance in school, in the sense that the numbers and letters on the page kind of swim in front of her eyes and she can't concentrate.
Astrid also scrounges through the school garbage for food and she still has vivid red scars on her face from the dog attack, so she's considered a freak by her schoolmates.
Astrid is surprisingly cool with this. She says, “The scars on my inside should show on my outside.”
She is 14 or 15 at this point, and this is just the sort of thing you would expect a 15 year old to say. Very teen angsty, and Astrid has come by her angst honestly.
Astrid complains to Child Protective Services about not being fed, repeatedly, but the caseworker in charge of her is in awe of Ramos and doesn't buy it. Fortunately, after several months of starvation Astrid's caseworker leaves the job and a new caseworker comes in and takes Astrid's complaints seriously and gets her moved to another home.
This doesn't help the half a dozen or so other girls being starved at Ramos' place, but none of them dares to complain because they fear that if they do, they will be taken to MAC, the MacConnell Children's Center where children go when they can't get placed at a foster home. The kids at Ramos' place are terrified of it, trading the devil they know for the devil they don't know.
The new caseworker places Astrid in a home that works out far better than any of the others she has been in. The husband, Mark Richards, is a successful reality show producer of a series that specializes in woo … haunted houses, that sort of thing. The wife, Claire Richards, is an actress who is not nearly so successful. Mark's job keeps him on the road much of the time, and Claire is left alone in the house, and it's clear that Astrid is there to keep her company.
But Claire does something that none of her other foster parents did: she gives Astrid unconditional love. This is something Astrid has never encountered before, because of course narcissist Ingrid considers Astrid to be a flawed extension of herself, when she notices Astrid at all.
Astrid of course returns Claire's love. She has been starved for love all her life, and she opens right up to Claire. She finally understands what it's like to be loved for who you are, without any caveats, and she loves it.
Astrid tells Claire all about herself and of course Claire is fascinated by Ingrid, the doomed poetess done wrong by her man.
Ingrid senses Astrid's affection for Claire from her letters and hates Claire, which is a Very Bad Thing because Claire is a gentle soul who is prone to depression, suspecting that Mark's frequent absences involve infidelity. In fact, Mark and Claire's real motivation for fostering Astrid was so that she could kind of watch Claire and not let her kill herself in a fit of depression.
Claire and Ingrid correspond. There is nothing Astrid can do to stop them from corresponding. She tries to tell Claire how dangerous and evil her mom can be, but Claire does not take Astrid seriously, she is blinded by Ingrid's brilliance as an artist. Eventually Claire wants to meet Ingrid, and Astrid finds herself forced to come along, filled with dread, knowing her mother is going to do something terrible to Claire. And of course, Ingrid does just that, very deliberately. She even advises Astrid to “Keep your bags packed” before the visit is over.
Over the Christmas holidays, one of the few times when Mark is sure to be home, he gets called away to chase some woo happening somewhere for his show, and it really cranks up Claire's fear of abandonment and infidelity, which of course are EXACTLY the feelings Ingrid worked on when she spoke alone with Claire during their visit.
So after Mark's tumultuous departure for the land of woo, Astrid hides because she can't handle the turmoil in the one place she'd found that she felt loved at. Later she goes and comforts Claire, and sleeps with her, not in the sexy way, even though Claire gives Astrid a kiss full on the lips. Astrid says she would have let Claire do anything to her sexually at that point, she loved Claire so much (but also not in a specifically sexual way, just general love for her as a person). But it's not a sexy kiss, it's a goodbye kiss, because when Astrid wakes up the next morning she finds Claire is dead, with a spilled bottle of sleeping pills next to her.
This understandably freaks Claire out, and she spends half a day wandering around mindlessly in the house, then calls Mark.
With her foster mother dead, Astrid winds up at the MacConnell Children's Center, the MAC that all the starvelings at Ramos' home feared so much. It is a rough place: Astrid cuts her long blond hair short because the boyfriend of another girl at MAC comments that he thinks Astrid is pretty and the girl and her friends jump Astrid and rough her up.
But other than that, MAC turns out to be a pretty nice place. Its institutional predictability is comforting to Astrid after so many downs and downs in the families she has been placed with. Nobody there loves her, but nobody there shoots her or kills themselves, and she can handle a little beating … on the scale of things she has been through, it's minor.
Also, while she's there, she meets a boy, Paul Trout, who is an artist like Astrid. Well, not like Astrid, he draws comics instead of doing watercolors like Astrid. But she sees genuine artistry in his comics, and although she doesn't become his girlfriend, exactly, they do become friends through their shared interest in art and in being outsiders (white kids are relatively rare in the foster child system generally and especially MAC, which the book does acknowledge in places. It's part of the White Oleander theme of the book: rare, poisonous plants with beautiful white blossoms, you see.)
Both Paul and Astrid are eventually placed with new homes, but Paul has an arrangement with a local comics store that's happy to function as a mail drop for him while he's with a home (Paul runs away from his foster homes a lot) and also setting up a drop for Astrid, so they can communicate.
Astrid gets a chance to go home with a very nice suburban couple but turns it down because she does not feel there is anything she can learn from them.
This actually marks a major change in Astrid, the first time she's actually made a choice about where she will be living. Throughout the book Astrid has been struggling with her mother's attempt to control her, but never really making any choices for herself in her own life, other than continuing to draw and paint.
Instead of going with the suburban couple, Astrid goes home with Rena Grushenka. Rena is a Russian who makes a living by scavenging, and Astrid is one of several girls she has scavenged from the foster care system. But with the girls, Rena's scavenging is benevolent in nature. The girls help Rena scavenge, and help her fix up or decorate scavenged items to increase their value. That's really all that's required of them (she's fostering them for the money, like the evil Mrs. Ramos, but unlike Mrs. Ramos, they get plenty to eat and a place to sleep. Who they sleep with is not a great interest of Rena's, nor are their social lives and activities, so long as they attend school as required).
Most of the girls in Rena's house at the time are in their teens, in a neighborhood full of boys who are either in bands, starting a band or thinking about starting one, so boyfriends and bands with loud music blaring 24/7 and plenty of soft drugs to enjoy are the norm.
Astrid is not a fan of the 24/7 party music, but as always, she adapts. And she does learn to like the scavenging lifestyle. She learns how to bargain and how to stick up for what she wants as part of the bargaining process.
She also befriends Yvonne, one of the girls at Rena's who is pregnant, and winds up going with her to her birthing classes, and even ends up attending at her child's birth, taking the place of the boyfriend who has ghosted.
Astrid stays with Rena for several years, graduating from high school and finishing out her time as a foster child, too.
Meanwhile, Ingrid has been having a lot of success as the woman poet imprisoned for murder, kinda wrongfully if you squint your eyes real hard and don't focus them, which a lot of people are willing to do for a beautiful imprisoned woman poet. She gets publicity, and her case attracts a big time feminist women's attorney, Susan Valeris, and soon there is a new trial in the offing on some legal grounds or other.
Valeris wants Astrid to testify on behalf of her mother, to explain that her mother never planned to kill Kolker, and that she did not poison him. And Astrid is fully willing to lie in court for her mom. But her time with Rena has sharpened Astrid. She realizes that there is something Ingrid needs from her, and that means she has power over Ingrid. So she meets with Ingrid and tells her she will testify for her, anything she likes, but in return, Ingrid needs to tell her the truth about a few things.
Ingrid of course says she has always told Astrid the truth, and that's when Astrid asks Ingrid who Annie was. “Annie” is a person whom Astrid has had vague snatches of memories of all her life. Very vague snatches, like memories of the phrase “Make tinkle for Annie.” Not “make tinkle for mommy.” And she occasionally draws a round-faced woman from memory whom she does not remember.
“How can you remember that?” Ingrid asks. And then proceeds to confess that when Astrid was a toddler, Ingrid got fed up with motherhood and abandoned Astrid for a year or so, dumping her on Annie, a neighbor who took in children and babysat. She left Astrid with her for an afternoon, then one thing led to another, and bob's yer uncle, Astrid remained with Annie for a year before Ingrid dropped by to pick her up.
For some reason, this pisses Astrid off, as she realizes that is the reason she has been so strongly attached to Ingrid. Ingrid had already abandoned her once. Astrid had spent her whole life anxious that her mother would abandon her again, and of course, when Ingrid killed Kolker, that was a form of abandonment, too. Ingrid had certainly never taken the effect this would have on Astrid into account, and if she had, she would have dismissed it with some Nietzchean bullshit along the lines of “Whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger.”
“You should have been sterilized!” Astrid says, pissed as hell.
Ingrid is upset by the coldness she finds in Astrid, and the ground shifts as Ingrid bargains to get back in Astrid's good graces. Astrid is still a hard bargainer, and of course, what Ingrid has done is something that requires more than an apology. She tell Ingrid that the only way she will believe that Ingrid actually loves her is if she were to tell her lawyer to stop pestering Astrid to testify on Ingrid's behalf. If she really loves Astrid, she'll give up the testimony that offers her strongest hope of being acquitted, and risk spending the rest of her life behind bars.
This is remarkably cold of Astrid. As a test of love, it's as extreme as it gets, and it's not just Ingrid who's taking a risk here. Imagine the guilt Astrid might feel if her mother's retrial resulted in a guilty verdict and she spent the rest of her life behind bars because Astrid didn't testify on her behalf. It's a risk Astrid is willing to take, which makes me think more than a little bit of Mom now resides in Astrid's soul.
Granted, Astrid doesn't have a love/hate relationship with her mother. It's more like love/hate/hate/hate/hate, and let's have a little more hate just to be on the safe side. Astrid has come a long way from the little girl who stood in awed worship of her mother's beauty and artistic dedication.
Ingrid accepts the deal, she wants to be in Astrid's good graces just that badly. Perhaps it is because for all the years behind bars, Astrid has been the one true human connection that Ingrid has had on the outside world. Or maybe the risk to Ingrid is not so great as it might seem: she is a dedicated aesthete. She is still able to write poetry while sitting in her jail cell, and that might just be enough, for Ingrid.
Freed of any obligation to her mother, Astrid hooks up with Paul through the comic bookstore mail drop, and the two of them move to Berlin. Why Berlin? I have no fucking clue. Maybe because in Germany college is free to anyone who wants to attend, and Paul and Astrid enroll as kibitzers in some advanced art classes.
In Berlin Astrid stops drawing and starts creating art projects. She buys suitcases and decorates her interior with found art from flea markets and such.
Wait, I said “her interior” instead of “their interiors.” That was not a mistake. The suitcases all relate to memories and events in her life. For example, there is a “Claire” suitcase that incorporates 27 different words for “sorrow” and sleeping pills and swatches of nice fabric. These suitcases represent Astrid incorporating her life into some kind of structure, something she can get a handle on rather than a random series of Dickensian tragedies as they might seem to a disinterested observer.
Throughout the book Astrid has expressed fears that she would wind up alone, abandoned and eventually dead, like the rusted out hulks of cars that litter then dry basin of the Los Angeles River. It's not just a fear of death, it's a fear of nothingness, a fear of never having been. The suitcases represent Astrid building herself into a person, of creating a life for herself, something she is also doing as she lives with Paul in Berlin. Their life is one of extreme poverty, as neither really has a job or any skills … basically, they are orphans with high school degrees (at least in Astrid's case, I'm not sure about Paul's). They live in an abandoned building with just a single space heater that smells like singed hair when it's working, sleeping together in a sleeping bag fully clothed because it's just that fucking cold in Berlin.
But they do have a life, however precarious economically. And Astrid's suitcase art (and Astrid herself) catches the eye of an art professor in Berlin who wants to buy them. But Astrid can't sell them, despite their grinding poverty, because they represent her life, though she does create a suitcase for the professor as a gift. (Astrid is fully aware that the professor would like to sleep with her, and she would have no qualms with doing so, except for her relationship with Paul. She is totally willing to lay down for the father.)
And yes, by interpreting her life in terms of the suitcases, Astrid is going down the same path her mother did. She is casting her life in aesthetic terms. But you never get the sense that Astrid will ever care more about her life than the people who are important to her. She's not THAT kind of asethete. Then again, she put her mother on the hook for a life in prison just to test how much she loved Astrid. There are definitely some not-warrm-and-cuddly aspects to Astrid's personality.
Ingrid wins her retrial even without Astrid's testimony (there were many irregularities during the trial, it turns out). With Ingrid out of prison, and Astrid knowing that she means so much to Ingrid that she will risk life in prison, returning to California for a life of relative ease as the celebrity poet/jailbird's daughter is attractive. As bad as Ingrid was, she was also enthralling, and she did give Astrid a childhood where she felt safe and protected, so long as Ingrid was around, anyway. But Astrid chooses instead to stay in chilly Berlin with Paul to build her own life.
That's how the book ends, with Astrid choosing to remain with Paul but realizing that at some level she will always love Ingrid, the mother that gave her a childhood that enchanted her, even though she can't really have that mother any more.
Now, let's talk about the movie. I have saved some of my thoughts on the book for the movie review, because there are some things the book did much better than the movie, and some things the movie did better than the book, and mostly it's a matter of how the two media differ, though I do think Fitch is a better writer than Mary Agnes Donohue, the woman who adapted the book to movie form. Then again, I think Fitch is one of the finest writers we have, so I'm not throwing shade on Donohue here.
First of all, in any movie adaptation of a book, the big issue is what are you going to include, and what are you going to drop? Donohue did a great job, though I think the episodic nature of the book made things easy for her. She discarded the whole Marvel Turlock episode, a sound decision I think. Its only purpose, really, is to have Astrid consider and reject the life of prostitution through her friendship with Olivia Johnstone. When Johnstone ghosts Astrid after Turlock calls the cops on her, Astrid realizes that the problem with prostitution is that you trade the possibility of emotionally satisfying sexual relationships for money … you get the goods, but that's all you get. No love, the stuff Astrid has been starved of and craves.
It's a valid insight I suppose (I don't know enough about the lives of prostitutes to speak knowledgeably on its validity) but it is really a sidelight in relation to the main theme, Astrid's relationship with her mother.
And frankly, to a certain extent, this episode reads as if Fitch had decided to “do” the prostitution issue as part of the story. It's a realistic issue for a really beautiful young woman in the foster care system to face, but not central to the story. Good call.
The dog mauling was also dropped. I don't think it had any place in the novel, it seemed to just come out of nowhere and go nowhere.
Likewise, the Ramos episode was dropped. I agree with this even more … it was by far the weakest episode. It's credible that some foster children would be starved for the sake of money by their foster parents, but it's a real sideline. It did nothing to advance Astrid's character.
The casting was for the most part spot on. But there was one notable departure, and that was Ray, Astrid's lover at Starr's home. I expected a buffer Big Lebowski Jeff Bridges, what we got in the movie was a young, buff Cole Hauser, very handsome, nice six pack abs rather than the slightly pudgy waistline and three missing fingers described in the book. The movie Ray is very much a romantic movie leading man, very handsome, which works hard against the theme of Astrid being attracted to Ray primarily because of the kindness he shows her. You can see almost any adolescent girl finding movie Ray attractive enough to stalk him in a deserted house and jump him like a desperate cougar, as Astrid does.
This brings up another difference between the movie and the book. The sexual relationship between Astrid and Ray is so severely downplayed that it does not really exist. We know Astrid likes Ray, but that's about all we know. The hot and heavy sexual affair between 14-year-old Astrid and middle-aged Ray that was clearly described in the book vanishes in the movie.
This was not a good decision, I thought it really set the movie back, because it made the character of Astrid considerably less deep and complex. She wanted Ray, and you could sense her mother's headstrong “I want what I want and will have it” inside her as she went after him. Astrid had learned from Ingrid that men were easily available, all you had to do was lure them in and they were yours, and although Astrid was a lot less subtle than her mother with regard to Ray, she got what she was after.
In the movie Astrid is this hurt little innocent who never does anyone any harm who toughens up due to all her misfortunes, becoming a hard-bargaining street punk artist kind of woman. But in the book there was always the sense of Ingrid's influence over Astrid, or maybe just Astrid being like her mother by inheritance.
Imagine how much depth it would have added to the movie to have a scene where Ingrid has picked out one of her young poet admirers for her next affair, a shot of her looking at him when he is unaware, a smile that combines lust and anticipation but also has a cool, predatory element to it. Then imagine a shot later on of Astrid looking at Ray in exactly the same way, without consciously knowing she is doing so. It would have added so much to the characterization.
I don't know exactly why Donohue or whomever had power over her decided to deep six the Ray/Astrid affair, but I think I know why they did it. They did it because they feared they would not be able to get any decent rating from the MPAA if they included it. Underage sex, especially with middle aged men, is a sensitive topic in America. I know, I write erotica and sell it on Amazon, and there are several topics that will get your book banned on Amazon, and sexual relationships involving underage characters in any way, however carefully done, is right up there at the top. If you ignore a book ban and keep submitting books with sex in them involving underage characters, you will find your account banned on Amazon, a huge financial blow to anyone who is trying to make money as a writer. (I don't deal in this topic in my writings, but I have had several books banned for other reasons, so I have learned to pay careful attention to where the lines are drawn.)
I think it's a shame that the Ray/Astrid affair was left out of the movie, but I understand the motives of the filmmakers, and I don't think it was an unreasonable decision on their part, even if it did damage the story. They may have been in serious jeopardy of being rated out of having an audience had they not done so.
There is also the matter of Ingrid. On the one hand, the casting was spot on, as it was in almost every case in the movie. (It's no surprise, the book was full of juicy roles for women and juicy roles for women in Hollywood are rare. I bet if the showrunners had insisted on auditions that involved wrestling oiled and naked while reciting lines from the movie, they would still have had an assortment of heavy hitters lined up, naked, oiled and ready to wrestle.) Michelle Pfeiffer is achingly beautiful and has the sharp features and intensity that the role of Ingrid demands. She knocked her scenes out of the park every time … you could sense the almost fanatical aesthete lurking behind her beauty and her exquisite manners.
But I noticed that most reviewers of the movie simply described Ingrid as a narcissist and sociopath. None of them really got very far in describing the aesthete element of Ingrid, her commitment to art and poetry and the seriousness with which she takes them, and herself. I don't think it was because the reviewers were unperceptive. I think the movie didn't have the time to work those elements in properly. Fitch had the luxury of building a complex, layered portrait of both Ingrid and Astrid throughout the course of the novel, and without that layered portrait, reviewers could not see that Ingrid's problem was not that she was unable to feel normal emotions and empathy, but that she had filtered all her feelings through her art, that Ingrid the person might be someone more like her daughter Astrid. The thing that really makes White Oleander successful is the depth and complexity of Ingrid and Astrid … Ingrid isn't just a filler for the label “sociopath,” she's a very complex person, just as Astrid is more than a wounded dove who matures.
You can easily miss that in the movie, and that's a shame, though I don't feel it's the moviemaker's fault, so much as part of the movie medium.
The one cure for this issue I can think of would be to turn “White Oleandar” into a miniseries, which would give the filmmakers much more opportunity to flesh out Ingrid and Astrid's characters. (Though I don't know of any channel that would run such a series that would allow the showrunners to deal honestly with the theme of Astrid's sexuality, especially her relationship with Ray.)
The place where the movie really shines, I think, is in the way it brings breath and life into the characters. Allison Lohman does a great job with Astrid, starting out as the wounded dove she is and toughening up gradually as she is hardened by her experiences in foster care, and as she slowly realizes how little she meant to Ingrid in the grand scheme of things.
Rene Zellweger also brings Claire to life. Most reviewers describe this as a brilliant bit of acting, but I don't quite agree. The role seemed to me to be right in Zellweger's wheelhouse, and she just did the kind of acting she normally does, and knocked it out of the park. It was a brilliant bit of casting, I'll grant you that.
Robin Wright Penn (aka Robin Wright) did a fine job as Starr, but it wasn't really a demanding role. She brought out as much to Starr's character as there was, but it wasn't a role that called for depth of subtlety, moving from a reformed alcoholic True Believer to an enraged alcoholic with a gun wasn't a tough character arc in the movie.
Similarly, Svetlana Efremova did a fine job playing Rena Gruschenka, but I didn't see it as a difficult role. The sparsity of roles for female actors that don't involve being “The Girl” or “The Mother” or “The Kickass Action Chick” means that almost any decently cast role is going to be filled by an actress who is WAAAY overqualified for the material.
Speaking of “The Girl” I thought Patrick Fugit did a fine job as “The Boy” aka Paul Trout. Now, that is a bit unfair … There are layers to Trout's character in the book that create all kinds of opportunities for acting: he is the child of junkie parents whom he does not respect (see: junkies) and he has a bad skin and he's a real artist in his own right, with a lot of insight into Alison and genuine feeling for her, and not just because she's as beautiful as he is unbeautiful. He feels drawn to her because of their shared status as outsider artists who have the deck stacked against them because of the foster child status.
But the same time compression issues that made so many reviewers see Ingrid Magnussen as simply “The Sociopath Mom” work to make Trout into just “The Boy.” Fugit does a fine job of playing Trout, capturing his combination of diffidence as an unattached orphan and confidence in his art, but there's just not enough screen time devoted to him to fully flesh out his character -- another problem that a miniseries could solve.
Barry Kolker is even more severely cropped by the movie. His appearances are confined to a few flashbacks showing the lead-up to his murder. The movie gives us no idea that Kolker chased -- stalked, almost -- Ingrid for a long time before she lowered her standards and let him become her lover. It gives us no idea who Kolker is, other than that he is a wealthy, successsful pig who chases beauties like Ingrid relentlessly and then dumps them in the most cruel and thoughtless manner once he's had his fill of them.
To be honest, that's all the role requires, basically, but it did leave out the insight into Ingrid's taste and character that made Kolker's pursuit of her ultimately successful.
These problems with the movie underscore some of the problems with the book, however. There were a few unanswered questions I would have liked answered after reading the book. The largest one was: Ingrid … how in the world did she become such a fucked-up person? What drove her to become such a total aesthete? What made her so absolutely independent of her family? Was she an orphan? We know nothing about Ingrid's family, other than a notion that she was vaguely related to Danish royalty.
These gaps in our knowledge are mostly explained by the fact that the entire book is written from Astrid's point of view. And Ingrid is just the sort of person who would not tell Astrid about her family because Ingrid deemed that to be unimportant. In fact, in the book it's revealed that when Astrid was eight, Astrid's father, who divorced Ingrid when Astrid was a toddler, had wanted to see Astrid, but Ingrid refused him permission, without taking Astrid's interests or needs into account at all, indeed, without informing Astrid of the incident at all until the meeting where Astrid forced Ingrid to tell her the truth about her life in exchange for her testimony.
The cost of telling the story totally from Astrid's viewpoint is that we don't understand what made Ingrid who she is, any more than Astrid does, and as she's one of the central characters in the story that's damned annoying.
Frankly, I wish Astrid had asked Ingrid quite a few more questions about Ingrid's family and early life while she had Ingrid tied over the barrel in their negotiations about her testimony.
Another place where I thought the book was weak was in dealing with issues of money and class. It's established early on that Ingrid is dirt poor, making eight bucks an hour, little more than minimum wage even in the late 80s, early 90s, as a paste-up artist at a third rate celebrity magazine. This is undoubtedly how a beautiful white woman got a 35-to-life sentence for murder, because for people with lawyers, especially beautiful people with decent lawyers, that just doesn't happen. And lawyers cost money.
But the problem with poverty and the law isn't really central to the book and it's not where it's a problem. It's a problem with Ingrid being an aesthete and dirt poor. Frankly, it's much more common to find hard-core aesthetes among the wealthy than the poor, because for the poor, keeping yourself fed, clothed and housed demands a certain amount of time, attention and energy that detracts considerably from being an aesthete. When brutal necessity and aestheticism collide, what you generally get is a greasy spot where the asestheticism used to be.
We are given hints and clues about how Ingrid deals with this: her wealthier boyfriends show her the good life during their dalliances with her. And as Astrid notes, Ingrid can eat nothing but peanut butter for days without being the least bit bothered by it.
It's even conceivable that Ingrid's extreme aestheticism is at least in part a defense against the poverty she finds herself mired in. She rejects her poverty through her aestheticism. Her job is just something she has to do to support her poetry. It's not an uncommon response to poverty among the aesthetically inclined, in fact, it's a cliché, but the aetheticism is generally not taken nearly as far as Ingrid takes hers.
Of course, Ingrid could probably get out of her poverty if she were willing to trade on her beauty and her artistic success as a poet and marry or become the mistress of a wealthy man. But that would be breaking one of her rules, and Ingrid doesn't break any of her rules until she falls for Kolker, which turns out to have been a very bad idea. Ingrid's rule are part of the reason she takes herself so seriously, they are MUCH more important to her than any of the laws of God and man, So when Ingrid breaks one of her rules to take Kolker as a lover, and he then spurns her in the crudest possible way, why that little man-rule about not killing others means NOTHING to Ingrid.
I think having the story be at least in part about a fine, noble (by her own terms) struggling artist being slowly ground down by poverty until circumstances and her own refusal to let herself be treated like a poor, slutty wench (which is what Kolker does to her) would have added a nice element of reality to the story … showing Ingrid struggling to be Ingrid in a world that only sees her as the third paste up artist to the left in some cubicle farm is something that would add an element of universal appeal, done correctly. And Fitch could have done it correctly, I have every confidence in her. She's a hell of a writer.
Which is a fine place to end my reviews of the movie and the book. Any comments I have made about the novel's shortcomings are mere quibbles, and the movie is a fine film that showcase the story as well as the medium and the censorship it's subject to would permit. Fact is, Frist has created some fascinating characters and a fine story that you and I can profitably think about and learn from.
And what I've done in writing this incredibly lengthy review is stretch out my enjoyment of them both by thinking about them more and in great detail. I also suspect that this exercise will inform my own writing as well. If you have read the whole damned thing, then I hope you will find that it has extended your enjoyment of “White Oleander” as well. Because otherwise, you have to be feeling really screwed right about now.