My younger self looks up. She senses me there in the room, a vague but troubling presence, I swear she catches a glimpse of me in the windows reflection- the woman from the future, neither young nor old, bathed in grief and compromise, wearing her own two eyes. A shudder passes through her as a draft.
One of my favorite books of all time is White Oleander by Janet Fitch, which I intend to review and post here, as I read it recently again. For now, it’s time to finally post my review. With this, her fresh new novel, the reader gets inside the mind of Marina Makarova, a privileged young woman who wants to free herself from the demands of polite society. History is going to grant her wish for freedom, poetry and love but on the precipice of becoming a woman, everything she imagines as adventurous and beautiful will be anything but.
Ripe for the picking, seduced by poetry of the moment, to young Marina, the Russian revolution goes against everything her family stands for, and it beckons to her young, wild heart. Headstrong to a fault, first she is all Kolya’s Shurov’s and in losing her innocence wants to shed the role of ‘well bred school girl.’ He has stirred her passions, opened her to the erotic. Where her family is loyal to country, Marina is concerned about the starving workers, but doesn’t really notice how far she is from ever understanding such a life. The first dissension between the lovers, the question of honor, and the reality of dying for a cause one doesn’t believe in takes root. Kolya returns to his regiment, Mina soothes her but it’s the fire in her friend Varvara that changes her fate. Witness to massacre, the rise of mutiny, and the start of revolution Marina is entrenched in the changing world. Tying herself to the threat of danger in Varvara cannot be helped and her friend won’t let her flirt with an idea, one is either all in or out.
Marina falls in with poets, and Gena Kuriakin in particular. To think that as she lived in another world, and never noticed him nor his group of poets, how much of the times she had truly been cut off from in her cushy place. She and her family, everything Gena would despise, the shame of it all. Marina is awakening, but she is led every which way, sadly more by her heart than her head, still cursed by the stupidity of youth and naivete. Beside Gena the reality of poverty shocks her with a death, and leads to her father’s fury. ” All those years of care and you throw yourself away with both hands.” Though it’s an old story, a young woman growing out from under her father’s vision of her as virginal, with the country going to war with it’s sisters and brothers, overthrowing one’s own family can be fatal. There are many times the reader is irritated by her carelessness too. Marina has far more choices than the others, whose fights she longs to shoulder as her own. Naturally, her father is just as wrong, having faith in more ‘honorable’ men who would and have soiled her as much as a ‘hooligan’ would. Her gentle brother Seryozha is forced into a life like their elder brother Volodya, an officer away and fighting. Though he is more an artist than a fighter, it could make a man of him yet, or see him to an early grave, and for her father’s belief in honor, she is horrified to see her beloved youngest brother sacrificed. As much as she no longer believes in the war, she has blinders when it comes to those without privilege. When discussing Keats with Lyuda, when she is sent away, “He doesn’t believe in the war.” Lyuda tells her ” Who does, it’s just our lot can’t get away with it.” Throughout the novel, she is exposed because as much as she has fight in her blood, she isn’t suffering the way the workers and peasants do, bowed by the work they must do to keep the likes of her fat and fed. She is still playing a part, until grief becomes reality.
She betrays everyone, and by her own hand loses everything for the Bolsheviks, for love. The best moments happen when women wiser than her laugh at her. Because she really doesn’t know half as much about life and men as they do. On page 264, the women act as a mirror and it’s my favorite moment of clarity for Marina, who has spent so much time thinking herself separate from all the other doomed women. She wanted life, and her it is in all it’s horrifying glory.
Marina returns to find her mother, to save her, even while having aided in bringing down her life. “People hate the bourgeoisie, period.” Her mother says, and it really is a country of peasants done with having the dainty feet of the rich pining them down. I don’t know nearly enough about Russian history, I’ve read books, I’ve listened to different elders in my family well schooled in European history and still… I was learning as I went along. Starvation, poverty, spilled blood, honor and loyalty verses change, the reader gets to be a fly on the corpse of history for a time. Marina is frustrating, because I am reading her coming of age when I myself am older and therefore her green ideas seem so far away and yet, she is perfectly written because of those youthful flaws.
Part V is my favorite, elders, insect eaters, scientists, it’s such a peculiar welcome journey. “In any Earthly Idyll, time and events will invariably intrude’ and thus happens while reading this book of 804 pages. How does Janet Fitch carry such a story and keep it going? Marina is many people in every incident of her life, as we all are. She will not get through her changing country without blood on her own hands. There are lulls, but I kept reading, I wanted to know how it all turned out. The last half of the novel is a strange, dreamlike return to home, a sort of Ionian spell and also an explanation in some ways of why people give up their power and chose to be acolytes to religions, rules, ideas or a leader. I’ll leave you with that.
Little, Brown and Company