Book Review: White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

White Oleander
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a long while do you come across such a book that’s a sheer pleasure to read. Every line, every word, so perfect and such poetry. I’m a sucker for good prose (even if the story is hardly there!) and this is just my kind of book. And to think this is the author’s debut novel. Bravo!

I loved Astrid Magnussen. I hated Ingrid Magnussen. The 3 days it took me to read the book, I was living with Astrid. The string of foster homes, the good ones and the bad. When she ached for her mother, I was there feeling her loneliness. When she found her light at the end of the tunnel, I was there cheering for her, but at the same time, praying that it doesn’t get messed up, that it’s not just a dream she wakes up from. It’s that powerful a book, the way it makes you identify with everyone. I don’t know how Janet Fitch does it, but she did – we look at the characters the way Astrid does, we feel what she feels, our perspective changes when hers does. We love Ingrid. Then we hate her. Then we’re confused. Just. Like. Astrid.

On a side note, I’ve always been enthralled by the oleander flower (in Tamil it’s called arali) – when I was a child, we had a shrub in a neighbor’s garden and I remember being warned by the adults that it was poisonous and not to ingest it. And oh, most Tamil movies in a rural setting had at least one or two women committing suicide by eating ground arali seeds! Ah, well. 😀

The theme of the book reminded me of another coming-of-age book I read recently – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I found Tartt a bit of a chore to read at times and I definitely found the book long by half. But where Tartt lost me, Fitch just had me wrapped up in beautiful prose and kept me in that cocoon for days, snug and comfortable in the sweet melancholy of those words. I remember feeling greedy and hungry when reading the book – my eyes would jump to the next line, next paragraph and I had to pull them back and savor the words at hand. (Afterthought – I felt so when I was reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

This story of a mother and daughter has sadness, but it’s not sad. There’s a constant glimmer of hope, of good things even amid the despair and loss. And that’s probably what I loved (I felt the Goldfinch was very sad) about this book. I don’t know if I will read it again, but I will always remember this feeling I have now, of quiet contentment and calm that comes when a great thing ends but envelops us with a gentle hug and whispers that it will be back soon.

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Remember 10-15 years back, when Internet meant sitting in front of a little dial-up box and mechanically re-trying because the sonofab**** just won’t get connected? All that silent cussing and praying, both equally earnestly? And then when it DID get connected, that loud crackling noise and assorted beeps and bops and oh joy, when Yahoo.com opens up nice and bright?

Today was like that. Because, thanks to the incessant rains or whatever nonsense, my WiFi died on me. Actually not just me – on the entire population in my apartment complex, but when did I ever pass up an opportunity to wallow in some self pity! And I’m thinking now or rather I’m unable to imagine now how we lived back then without Internet!
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If you’re in your 30s now, you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about so don’t bother acting like I’m talking gibberish. Yes, you. You know how it was. No WhatsApp, no Facebook and above all, no Google.

No. Internet.

When I had a doubt in Field Theory (hypothetical – you need to read something on the subject to even have doubts!) I first called my friend/classmate and hoped she had the answers. And if she didn’t? Well, wait till I got to college and ask one of the brainy types (One never had a doubt that was doubt enough to take to a professor, so let’s not complicate things). There were no quick solutions. Convert Fahrenheit to Celsius? Look up the formula from a textbook, yo. What’s the capital of Sierra Leone? Check the atlas or the GK book (we had those things back then!). How to bake a pavlova? Pavlova who? Right.

Well, nothing earth shattering, no. We got by. We lived. We spoke to other human beings in person. We walked to the shops. We had books and libraries. We didn’t second guess our teachers and doctors. We didn’t let the milk boil over too often because someone was engrossed in a smartphone. We did good.

But it’s not so now, people. I think I’m going insane. Like, slowly but surely treading the path to cuckoo land.

I make breakfast but where’s Instagram to take a pic?!

I put the milk on the stove, but where’s Facebook to catch up on?!

Son wants to see Little Krishna, but where’s YouTube?!

And I have to ask the rest of the folks if THEIR WiFi is up or not BUT WHERE THE HELL IS WHATSAPP?!!!!

WHAT SORT OF AN EFFED UP SERVICE PROVIDER HAVE I SIGNED UP WITH WHO WILL LET SUCH IRRESPONSIBLE THINGS HAPPEN?!!!

I’M SHOUTING.

I’M GOING INSANE.

And then the son (who was till now yelling Amma Amma like a million times!) asks me to help him fix his building blocks. Well, alright kiddo, you’re in luck because Amma has nothing better to do right now. I chuck the phone and sit down with him. And we built an aeroplane. Stairs to climb up. A toll booth. An entire parking lot with real (toy) cars and trucks. We had little cops pull up errant bulldozer drivers and take them to jail for not following traffic rules. We hauled playdoh rocks into trucks and sent it spinning down a ramp. We sang made up songs about each other (“Amma Amma goes to kitthen…and bwings me chapati buvva” – Amma song, by V). We did good.

If you think I’m going to end this piece saying it’s a great blessing to spend time with family, yada yada yada..well..yeah, that’s there but, dude, I want me some Internet, yo. My brain cells are fried after that little play session and I NEED MY BYTE FIX RIGHT NOW.

AAARRGGHHHH!!