WHITE OLEANDER is the kind of novel that agents still talk about, over twenty years after it was published in 1999. As I was curious to see what they were talking about, I recently read it.
The agents were right. This is an amazing novel, not just for the outrageous but believable character of Ingrid Magnusson and her daughter Astrid, not just for the amazing plot twists and turns, but for the amazing prose style.
“What was the best day of your life?” she asked me one afternoon as we lay on the free-form couch, her head on one armrest, min on the other. Judy Garland sang on the stereo, “My Funny Valentine.”
“Today,” I said.
“No.” She laughed, throwing her napkin at me. “From before.”
I tried to remember, but it was like looking for buried coins in the sand. I kept turning things over, cutting myself on rusty cans, broken beer bottles hidden there, but eventually I found an old coin, brushed it off. I could read the date, the country of origin.
It was when we were living in Amsterdam.”
What a great use of metaphor and simile. Here is another example.
And now it was too late. I looked at Sergei across the table in Rena’s kitchen. He could care less about my boyfriend in New York. He didn’t even care about his girlfriend in the next room. He was just like one of Rena’s white cats – eat, sleep, and fornicate. Since the night I’d seen them together on the couch, he was always watching me with his hint of a grin, as if there were some secret we shared.
“So how is your boyfriend?” he asked. “Big? Is he big?”
Niki laughed. “He’s huge, Sergei. Haven’t you heard of him? Moby Dick.”
Olivia had told me all about men like Sergei. Hard men with blue veins in their sculpted white arms, heavy-lidded blue eyes and narrow waists. You could make a deal with a man like that. A man who knew what he wanted. I kept my eyes on the broccoli and cheese.
“You get tired of waiting,” he said. “You come see me.”
“What if you’re no good?” I said, making the other girls laugh.
“Only worry you fall in love Sergei,” he said, his voice like a hand between my legs.
What’s not to like about this book? The ending. I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like being left with two choices, two ways that this heartbreaking story might go. I thought that the author should have done that hard work for me. Four stars.