hite Oleander," Janet Fitch's affecting but overwrought first novel, is set in a Los Angeles that's part James M. Cain, part Joan Didion. The Santa Ana winds blow relentlessly in Ms. Fitch's L.A., sowing fires and migraines and discord. It is a place painted in the colors of film noir, a place where the hot wind smells of laurel and creosote, and the toxic oleander plant thrives. It is a place where lovers who kill one another "blame it on the wind."
The murder that takes place in the opening pages of "White Oleander" is committed by the narrator's mother, an imperious, narcissistic poet named Ingrid Magnussen who poisons her boyfriend Barry when he tries to dump her. Ingrid has long since dumped the father of her daughter, Astrid; and with her mother's arrest and sentencing to prison, 12-year old Astrid suddenly finds herself without a family. Her reminiscences recount the picaresque story of her journey through Los Angeles' labyrinthine foster care system, while chronicling her efforts to come to terms with her formidable and frightening mother.
Although the mother-daughter portrait in these pages will doubtless be compared to the one Mona Simpson drew in her powerful 1986 novel "Anywhere but Here," the two books vary widely in their effects. This novel not only lacks the nuanced, psychological detail of "Anywhere" but it also tries to do something very different. Whereas Ms. Simpson carefully delineated the day-to-day life shared by her heroine and her heroine's mother, Ms. Fitch is more concerned with the ghostlike role that the ferocious Ingrid plays in her daughter's memory once she has left for prison.
Ingrid assumes a kind of mythic stature in her daughter's imagination. Astrid will continually measure herself against the standards of her mother's beauty and fearlessness (and find herself lacking) while at the same time learning to hate her mother for her selfishness, her cruelty and her ability to manipulate and charm. Throughout her peregrinations from one foster home to another, she will look for another woman to fill her mother's role, to provide the love and sustenance she never had at home.
Ms. Fitch's descriptions of those disparate foster homes provide the reader with a sociological tour through a veritable cross section of Los Angeles. Astrid's first foster mother, a former topless waitress named Starr, buys her new clothes (a tight pink dress and matching pink high-heeled shoes) and has her baptized as a born-again Christian; Starr will later shoot Astrid with a .38 caliber pistol when she learns that Astrid has been having sex with Starr's boyfriend Ray.
Ray's observation that he is married but hasn't seen his wife in two or three years makes Astrid feel dizzy, "like I wanted to grab hold of something heavy and hang on." With the disintegration of her own family, she realizes, she has entered a world of permanent flux. "This was the life I was going to be living," she thinks, "everybody separated from everybody else, hanging on for a moment, only to be washed away. I could grow up and drift away too."
Astrid's subsequent foster parents include Ed and Marvel Turlock, a lower-middle-class couple who use her as a maid and baby sitter for their children; a wealthy Argentine exile named Amelia Ramos who starves the children she takes into her home, and a hard-drinking trash picker named Rena Grushenka who teaches her wards how to go through other people's garbage and recycle their finds as flea-market treasures.
For a time Astrid finds happiness with an impossibly perfect Hollywood couple named Ron and Claire Richards. He is a television producer and she is an actress, and they live in a "Leave It to Beaver" cute house. Claire nurtures Astrid's gifts as an artist, enrolling her in classes at the local museum, and she encourages her to sign up for honors classes in high school. Astrid will later learn that Claire is a deeply troubled manic depressive, fearful of losing her husband and fearful of the outside world.
When Ingrid hears of her daughter's wonderful new life, her possessiveness turns toxic. She tells Astrid she would rather see her "in the worst kind of foster hell than with a woman like that," and she begins writing to Claire, playing upon her insecurities and doubts. When Claire commits suicide, Astrid blames her mother. She must later decide whether she should help her mother try to appeal her sentence.
Such melodramatic developments fuel the roller-coaster narrative of "White Oleander." Ms. Fitch displays an irritating penchant for punctuating Astrid's story every few dozen pages with a terrible event (from a shooting to a dog attack to an assault by other children) as well as an intermittent taste for romance-novel prose. ("So I just rode, the ocean spray tingling all over me, the tide rising, filled with starfish and phosphorescence, into the dawn.")
What keeps "White Oleander" from devolving into a television mini-series is Ms. Fitch's aptitude for delineating Astrid's inner life, for showing us the pull she feels between her mother (and her mother's destructive impulses) and her own need for independence; for showing us her craving for family and the slowly dawning recognition that she must invent herself. The resulting novel is frequently obvious and over the top but at the same time oddly haunting.
"White Oleander" tells a sad story of crime and foster homes, and makes it look like the movie version. The film takes the materials of human tragedy and dresses them in lovely costumes, Southern California locations and star power. Almost makes it look like fun. The movie's poster shows four women's faces side by side, all blindingly blond: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger. We suspect there could be another, parallel story of the same events, in which the characters look unhinged and desperate and brunet.
The story is determined to be colorful and melodramatic, like a soap opera where the characters suffer in ways that look intriguing. When you are a teenage girl and your mother is jailed for murder and you are shipped to a series of foster homes, isn't it a little unlikely that each home would play like an entertaining episode of a miniseries? First you get a sexy foster mom who was "an alcoholic, a cokehead and dancing topless--and then I was saved by Jesus," although she still dresses like an off-duty stripper. Then you get an actress who lives in a sun-drenched beach house in Malibu and becomes her best friend. Then you get a Russian capitalist who dresses like a gypsy, uses her foster kids as dumpster-divers, and runs a stall at the Venice Beach flea market. Aren't there any foster mothers who are old, tired, a little mean and doing it for the money? The performances are often touching and deserve a better screenplay. I don't hold the beauty of the actresses against them, but I wish the movie had not been so pleased with the way the sunlight comes streaming through their long blond hair and falls on their flawless skin and little white summer dresses.
The movie is narrated by Astrid Magnussen, played by Lohman in several different years and weathers of her life. It's an awesome performance but would benefit from depth and darkness that the movie shies away from. (The movie is all too appropriately rated PG-13; I suspect full justice cannot be done to this material short of an R.) Astrid is the daughter of Ingrid (Pfeiffer), an artist and free spirit who sits on the roof so the desert winds can find her. "No one had ever seen anyone more beautiful than my mother," Astrid tells us, but there are ominous hints that Ingrid is not an ideal mother, as when she skips Parents Night because "what can they tell me about you that I don't already know?" Ingrid doesn't date. Doesn't need men. Then makes the mistake of letting Barry (Billy Connolly) into her life (although so fleeting is his role he is barely allowed into the movie). She kills him, observing to her daughter, "He made love to me and then said I had to leave because he had a date." When you hardly know someone and that's how he treats you, he's not worth serving 35 years to life.
Astrid then moves on to the series of foster homes, each one so colorful it could be like the adventure of a Dickens character; the Russian is unmistakably a descendent of Fagin, and surely only in a Hollywood fantasy could any of these women qualify as foster mothers. Starr, the former stripper, seems less like a person than a caricature, although the director, Peter Kosminsky, has a good eye for detail and shows how her family takes a jaundiced view of her born-again grandstanding. What happens to bring this foster experience to an end I will not reveal, except to say that I didn't for a moment believe it; it involves behavior of a sort the movie seems obligated to supply but never refers to again.
Astrid's best foster experience is with Claire (Zellweger), whose performance is the most convincing in the movie. She plays a onetime horror star, married to a director who is usually absent, and we believe the scenes she has with Astrid because they come from need and honesty.
They also inspire the best scenes between Astrid and her mother; Pfeiffer finds just the right note between jealousy and perception when, on visiting day at the prison, she observes, "You dress like her now." Later she tells her daughter, "I'd like to meet her." "Why?" "Because you don't want me to." And later: "How can you stand to live with poor Claire? I would rather see you in the worst kind of foster home than to live with that woman." The scenes involving Claire most clearly inspire Astrid's developing ideas about her mother.
The third foster experience, with Svetlana Efremova playing the Russian jumble-sale woman, offers a glimpse of the economy's underbelly but is too choppy and perfunctory to engage us: It feels like it was filmed to add color and then chopped to reduce the running time. Its only influence on Astrid is to change her wardrobe and hair color, in what feels more like a stunt than a character development.
Pfeiffer's role is the most difficult in the movie because she has to compress her revelations and emotions into the brief visits of her increasingly dubious daughter. Astrid, who once idealized her mother, now blames her for the loss of happiness with Claire. But even the movie's big emotional payoff at the end loses something because, after all, Ingrid did murder Barry, and so what is presented as a sacrifice on behalf of her daughter could also be described as simply doing the right thing.
"White Oleander" is based on a novel by Janet Fitch, recommended by Oprah's Book Club, unread by me. I gather it includes still more colorful foster home episodes. Amy Aquino plays Miss Martinez, the social worker who drives Astrid from one foster adventure to the next. She feels like this movie's version of Michael Anthony, the man who introduced each episode of "The Millionaire." You can imagine her on the TV series, shipping the heroine to a different foster home every week.