Astrid Magnussen nearly worships her poet mother Ingrid. At twelve years old, Astrid has already lived an unusual vagabond life with her mother. Now the two have settled for awhile in the dry heat of Los Angeles, reeking of creosote with the forests bursting into flame.
Ingrid, herself stunningly beautiful, believes that nothing is important but beauty. She tells Astrid stories of ruthless Viking ancestors who take what they want, for she sees weakness in Astrid and wants to root it out. She is clearly a narcissist. For pleasure, she brings home beautiful young men and then unceremoniously discards them. She keeps Astrid up all night looking at the stars. Although Astrid fears Ingrid will one day leave her, she is smart enough to realize that with her mother everything is always about Ingrid herself.
Then Ingrid falls in love with Barry, an ordinary man. For once, Astrid feels a little secure, as if she has a father. But when Barry dumps Ingrid for a younger woman, Ingrid becomes insane with rage and does something terrible. She ends up in prison, and Astrid is abandoned to the foster care system.
This novel is sometimes beautiful. The beginning dealing with the relationship between the two and their earlier lives is poetically told. Other times it is brutally powerful, as Astrid is torn from her precisely kept home and thrown into a series of horrendous foster homes. Even more heartbreaking is what happens when she finally finds a loving one.
White Oleander is original and gorgeously written, about the search for love and a safe harbor, about betrayal, madness, self-absorption, and self-discovery. The lovely but poisonous white oleander is a symbol for Ingrid’s motherhood, as Astrid finally realizes she will always ache for her mother’s love and never have what she wants.