Can You Give Me the Sky?

by dhaaruni

As a rule, I’m disinclined to trust public opinion on things. I don’t read YouTube comments, I seldom go on tags for Tumblr and Twitter and I avoid Reddit like the plague because to put it simply, I don’t like it when my opinion is disagreed with and it often is. I fully ignore reviews for works of literature apart from those in official publications because it viscerally upsets me to see any piece or character I have an emotional connection to torn apart without restraint. But I made the mistake of checking out the Goodreads reviews for “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch.

It was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in 1999 and was the subject of a great deal of “coffee table” talk for the next few years for its controversial subject matter as well as the lucidity of its prose. Oleander is a toxic shrub that provides the catalyst for the plot of the novel, which is the coming of age tale of Astrid Magnassun who is shunted through a series of foster homes after her mother Ingrid murders her former lover Barry by smearing the surfaces in his apartment with a combination of Oleander sap and DMSO, an arthiritis drug. In short, the reviews for the novel praised Fitch’s writing style, although a large portion of them didn’t hesitate to label it as visibly “feminine,” (whatever that means) but entirely derided both Astrid and Ingrid as confusing, contradictory, unbelievable, and unlovable.

I’m not claiming that either Astrid or Ingrid are paragons of virtue but to claim that their actions don’t make sense indicates a profound misunderstanding of basic psychology and honestly, a lack of basic empathy. The paradox of human emotion is that sometimes, the rational explanation for an emotion is that there is no rational explanation. On occasion, there is no reason for an individual’s response to trauma, and there is a certain uniqueness in the construction of the human psyche. In this case, I’m responding to the claims that Astrid’s fixation on Ray, the middle aged man who she sleeps with as a 14 year old, is unnatural since she was also shot by Ray’s girlfriend Starr, her foster mother, and was bitten by a dog and had much worse things happen to her. Perhaps a 14 year old girl focuses on the parts of her life she believes she has a modicum of control over (although there is no way a girl that young can give consent to a grown man since she lacks the emotional maturity to be capable of it) instead of the parts that are so far out of her realm of comprehension she suppresses them. And in any case, to believe that children are to blame for the actions of adults (“She seduced him and he had no way to resist”) is disgusting.

Astrid was a hard character, all jagged edges that cut if you get too close to her, but it was a hardness that many teenagers possess and one that she wasn’t allowed to grow out of. Her mantra was survival and it’s admirable but also borderline terrifying the amount she was willing to sacrifice, her innocence, the prospect of love, money, whatever she had. I think I had a harder time connecting with Astrid than with Ingrid because I’m not as strong as Astrid and I’m not as unscrupolous. I have a deep rooted optimism that I can’t eviscerate the way Astrid does at such a young age because I was loved in a way that Astrid wasn’t. I believe in its existence because I still maintain that child’s logic “if my parents could love me this much, and do this much for me, that means I’m lovable and I obviously deserve to be loved romantically as well.” At one point, Astrid gives a boy a blowjob for a gram of weed which was the only place I stopped and put the novel down; it disgusted me so much and made me sad because at the end of the day, it feels like Astrid’s pragmatism regarding the selling of her body for goods is the fate all women are doomed to. Whether it’s the cold hearted near prostitution of Olivia, Astrid’s erstwhile neighbor or the more nuanced manipulations many girls perform on a daily basis, it feels like we’re just bodies and bones, buried at adolescence and never returned unless we dig ourselves out and render ourselves vulnerable to those who would gladly raze us to the ground.

Ingrid on the other hand, Ingrid made me laugh first of all, and I think Ingrid reminded me of what my mother would have been like with Ingrid’s upbringing. Ingrid rejects love the way Astrid hungers for it because when she allows herself to succumb to it, it destroys her to the point she kills a man who didn’t love her back the way she wanted to be loved which is why she was so wary of it in the first place.

“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes its mind.” Her eyes were closed. Beads of water decorated her face, and her hair spread out from her head like jellyfish tendrils. “But hatred, now. That’s something you can use. Sculpt. Wield. It’s hard or soft, however you need it. Love humiliates you, but hatred cradles you. It’s so soothing. I feel infinitely better now.”

“I’m glad,” I said. I was glad she felt happier, but I didn’t like the kind of happiness it was, I didn’t believe in it, I believed it would crack open sooner or later and terrible things would come flying out.”

The prose of this novel is poetic and it’s smooth in a way that renders it still relevant decades after its publication but it’s also sharp when you least expect it such that it made me pause to collect my thoughts. The strange dichotomy between Ingrid’s out loud discourse and the truth behind it which Astrid states in her monologue intrigued me because my instant response to any form of turmoil is to pretend nothing is wrong, almost to Ingrid levels, even if my inner Astrid knows the truth.

And of course, Ingrid wasn’t a good mother, and she wasn’t a good person even if she did love Astrid in her own way. I loathe parents who abandon their children and parents who don’t love their children properly and Ingrid checks off both those boxes but I didn’t hate Ingrid because I understood why she was the way she was. But, my take on parenting is, if you have a child, you are committing to that child. Parents explain the universe to their children and more often than not, the universe has patterns which they’re responsible for teaching them; if there is no consistency in a child’s upbringing, you can’t blame the kid when they lash out because they deserve better.

In short, White Oleander deserves to be read, and it deserves to be understood because it speaks to the part of human nature that craves understanding more than love and has come to the realization that they’re not the same thing. The most dangerous thing is to abandon who we are for other people to love us because they still may leave us for simplicity, because they realize the night magic has been consumed. And don’t fall in love with another magician because the magic doesn’t work when you know where it comes from and if your lover can’t give you the sky, then don’t stay, because they can still cause a natural disaster inside of you, eviscerating everything in its path.