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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...

FLY AWAY

Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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