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'White Oleander' Author Returns with 'Paint It Black'

There's a world of hurt in Janet Fitch's second novel, Paint it Black -- and if you venture in even a few pages, that world is going to hurt you. A lot.

Fitch is the Los Angeles writer whose first novel, White Oleander, made Oprah Winfrey cry and turned an unknown into a best-selling author. Seven years later, Fitch is back with another dark tale of fierce mothers, wounded children and family affliction.

The bad news arrives in a phone call to Josie, a 20-year-old punk-rocker and artist's model. Can she come down to the Los Angeles County coroner's office to identify her boyfriend Michael's body? He's committed suicide, and that moment plays and replays throughout the rest of the book.

Suicide, Fitch tells us, is an endless vortex of guilt, rage and loss that swamps the survivors. As Josie's life stumbles along, awash in sex, drugs and vodka, she's trapped in the single year of her relationship with Michael, spent in their tiny Echo Park bungalow.

At first it was idyllic, like the moment Josie and Michael saw a blue heron in the Silver Lake reservoir:

But Michael's demons take over his life, and Josie's. Fitch, it seems, has no end of ways to describe despair. As in White Oleander, Paint it Black is a blend of soap and substance. Fitch sprinkles the narrative with puzzles and mysteries and almost solves some of them.

Emotions run high and introspection runs deep. In between, we're treated to a detailed tour of '80s Los Angeles -- an art deco building on Cahuenga, Dante's View in Griffith Park, the transients and tenements of Pico-Union and a dingy Chinatown bar.

The sense of place, the hunger for information, the need for relief are urgent. Fitch's prose is unflinching, if a bit overwrought. But all of her characters, even the briefest cameos, are so vivid that we remember their names and hope they'll reappear.

At Michael's funeral, his domineering mother Meredith, a brilliant musician, tries to strangle Josie and has to be pulled away. But Meredith looks and sounds and moves so much like her son that Josie finds herself seduced. She soon moves into Meredith's house, and learns that Michael told her many lies. Meredith, meanwhile, tries to consume Josie.

Fitch herself is the bad mommy here, never letting poor Josie heal. Lord knows Josie tries. But whatever she does -- finding a new self in a chic, thrift-store suit, acting in a student film, getting a moment of peace in her own home -- Fitch snatches it away.

It's only in the last scenes of Paint it Black, set in the Twenty-Nine Palms motel where Michael ended his life, that Josie gets even a glimmer of hope. Whether you buy what happens next is up to you. Whether Josie's successor gets to explore new ground in the next novel -- well, that's up to Fitch.

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Veronique De Turenne