WHITE OLEANDER

A first-rate debut about a teenaged girl’s arduous six-year journey of self-discovery. Astrid is 12 when her beloved mother, the poet Ingrid Magnussen, murders a former lover and is sent to jail. Her father long gone, Astrid ends up in foster care, moving through dysfunctional households across southern California. Only Claire Richards, actress wife of a wealthy TV producer, seems to offer a real family life as she nurtures Astrid’s academic and artistic abilities. But the Richards home has deep emotional fissures, skillfully exploited by Ingrid, who keeps jealous watch over her daughter by letter. Weak, neurotic Claire succumbs, and Astrid’s last foster home is a chaotic crash-pad overseen by a Russian immigrant engaged in various semi-legal hustles. Meanwhile, Ingrid has become a feminist cause cÇläbre with naive young disciples and a media-savvy lawyer working to get her a new trial. The embittered Astrid wants no part of this effort, and in a jailhouse confrontation challenges Ingrid to prove that she regrets her destructive role and will try to make amends for the hard times she’s caused her daughter. Despite melodramatic plot twists, the foster homes provide a nicely eclectic panorama of late 20th-century American life and a revealing stage for Astrid’s growth and personal struggles. She’s an appealing protagonist, smart and vulnerable, though her formidable mother is even more intriguing, and the author brilliantly delineates the woman’s complexity through her letters, which are masterpieces of epistolary voice and character development. Fitch displays remarkable artistic and psychological maturity throughout, skillfully making use of metaphors (like the beautifully poisonous oleander, Ingrid’s signature flower) to illuminate her central theme: the longing for order and connection in a world where even the most intimate bonds can be broken in an instant. The author allows her protagonist to achieve adulthood, love, an artistic vocation, and some semblance of inner peace without scanting the scars she will always carry. Vigorous, polished prose, strong storytelling, satisfyingly complex characters, and thoughtfully nuanced perceptions: an impressive debut indeed.

Pub Date: April 13, 1999

ISBN: 0-316-28526-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

BAREFOOT

Privileged 30-somethings hide from their woes in Nantucket.

Hilderbrand’s saga follows the lives of Melanie, Brenda and Vicki. Vicki, alpha mom and perfect wife, is battling late-stage lung cancer and, in an uncharacteristically flaky moment, opts for chemotherapy at the beach. Vicki shares ownership of a tiny Nantucket cottage with her younger sister Brenda. Brenda, a literature professor, tags along for the summer, partly out of familial duty, partly because she’s fleeing the fallout from her illicit affair with a student. As for Melanie, she gets a last minute invite from Vicki, after Melanie confides that Melanie’s husband is having an affair. Between Melanie and Brenda, Vicki feels her two young boys should have adequate supervision, but a disastrous first day on the island forces the trio to source some outside help. Enter Josh, the adorable and affable local who is hired to tend to the boys. On break from college, Josh learns about the pitfalls of mature love as he falls for the beauties in the snug abode. Josh likes beer, analysis-free relationships and hot older women. In a word, he’s believable. In addition to a healthy dose of testosterone, the novel is balanced by powerful descriptions of Vicki’s bond with her two boys. Emotions run high as she prepares for death.

Nothing original, but in Hilderbrand’s hands it’s easy to get lost in the story.

Pub Date: July 2, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-316-01858-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2007

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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