THE FIRST FEW pages of Janet Fitch's debut, White Oleander, ooze with a Californian vagueness we've come to associate with Shirley MacLaine: "I touched the flowers. Heaven. Man. I felt on the verge of something, a mystery that surrounded me like gauze, something I was beginning to unwind." But, matters improve considerably after page ten or so, and if you don't mind sporadic bits of new ageism, the remainder of White Oleander is so involving it merits a single-sitting read (and won a place on Oprah's bookshelf).
Fitch's creation, Los Angeles poet Ingrid Magnussen, is an Aryan beauty with a few published collections of poetry to her name and a venomous view of the human race. Ingrid's bevy of hunky young lovers parade through the house day and night, while her 12-year-old daughter Astrid tries to have a normal childhood. Part hippie and part intellectual pedant, Ingrid is deeply convinced of her inherent superiority in the world, a philosophy she uses to justify all manner of minor transgressions. When she murders her ex-lover for breaking up with her, and then refuses to admit that she did anything wrong, it becomes clear that Ingrid is not only delusional but dangerous.
With her mother awaiting a life in prison, Astrid enters the L.A. foster-care spin cycle and is placed with a series of eccentric and well-characterized families. First, there is Starr, a born-again former junkie who drags Astrid to freakish Sunday services and urges her to accept Jesus as her personal savior. (Astrid obliges, but only until her mother's fury arrives by mail: "Dear Astrid, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?? You may not 1) be baptized 2) call yourself a Christian and 3) write to me on that ridiculous stationery....God is dead, haven't you heard, he died a hundred years ago, gave out from sheer lack of interest.")
After a violent fracas with Starr over his middle-aged boyfriend Ray, Astrid is transferred to the home of the despotic Marvel Turlock, where she is immediately put to ironing, cooking, and baby-sitting round the clock.
White Oleander's Dickensian mood is relentless and continues well into Astrid's third and fourth families. Indeed, Fitch hatches such a barrage of tragic circumstances that the reader may feel like screaming, "Enough!" But Fitch successfully reins in the melodrama while treating female coming of age as a long succession of betrayals and injuries, with only the briefest glimmers of happiness. It's not a new perspective, but the characters are too vivid for anyone to care.
Janet Fitch reads 8:00 p.m. Thursday, July 1 at the Hungry Mind; (651) 699-0587.