We asked Patricia O’Hara, The Thalheimer Professor of Chemistry, what she’s been reading lately. Here is what she told us:
Like most parents of pre-teen and teenage daughters, I find myself turning to books to find hope of redemption. I’m just curious about how others see the mother-daughter relationship. Over the past few years, I’ve been guided by Ophelia’s revival (Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher) and heard her speak (Ophelia Speaks, by Sara Shandler). I was glad she could be survived (Surviving Ophelia, by Cheryl Dellasega), but I was not confident that I had the right stuff. I was about ready to check my girls into Swiss boarding schools and haul them out six years later. Then I saw my path to salvation. Last summer, I picked up Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and when I was done laughing I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, mess up any more than Vivi, could I? Wells’ imagery was so rich and the characters so unforgettable, I doubted I would find another book as captivating.
Janet Fitch’s White Oleander took me by surprise. Here are a mother, Ingrid, and her daughter Astrid. Ingrid is first and foremost a poet. She is a complex blend of profound self-centeredness, gutsy self-reliance and intoxicating beauty. Her favorite flower, the white oleander, mirrors the lethal beauty of the woman herself. Ingrid’s rules include, “Never let a man spend the night; dawn has a way of setting a pall on any night magic.” She answers her daughter’s questions about her father with an irritated wave of her hand: “Fathers are irrelevant.” It’s not long, however, before Ingrid becomes obsessed with a goat of a lover, who predictably spurns her. She takes revenge in a most unpredictable way that greatly interested this chemist. Her soliloquy about the superiority of hate over love left me chilled to the bone. Ingrid spends the rest of the book in a prison for women, and we see her through her daughter’s rare prison visits and unpredictable letters.
Astrid both worships and cannot forgive her mother. She sees her first dozen years of life—in which food, clothing and school were provided if her mother remembered—as a privileged existence on the perimeter of her mother’s greatness. Her life was filled with art and music; she was expected to memorize poetry, idolize beauty and despise the weakness of men. At the age of 12, with her mother sent to prison, Astrid begins a Heart of Darkness journey from one foster home, one nightmare, to another. We first meet a patched-together family of born-again Christians, and this seemingly innocent situation deteriorates fairly rapidly, with Astrid winding up in an emergency room with gunshot wounds. Another way station for Astrid is a world of child abuse bordering on child slavery that is too vivid not to be based on fact. Astrid next lands with a family whose banality nearly chokes her. She seeks the companionship of a Mercedes-driving call girl next door. Astrid finally is placed with a garbage-picking assembly of misfits who give her life some stability.
Throughout, Astrid fights to realize an identity apart from her bigger-than-life mother. She oscillates from child to adult and back in a heartbeat. She rebels, she seduces, she pierces, and we watch her self-destruct and then rise out of the ashes. She survives. And though her experiences are several light years apart from my children’s experiences, I recognize her. I see in her behavior my own girls’ struggles to grow up, to see how far they can go and to be simultaneously vulnerable and strong. I loved the book.