Review: The Liars’ Club

Even a few days after I’ve finished Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club: A Memoir, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not even sure if I liked it or not. But with a book like this, of a woman’s difficult, hardscrabble childhood in Texas and Colorado, “liking it” probably isn’t the point.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read many memoirs. I just naturally tend not to gravitate towards them. So this is a review by a relative newbie to the genre.

Here’s the summary, from Amazon:

In this funny, razor-edged memoir, Mary Karr, a prize-winning poet and critic, looks back at her upbringing in a swampy East Texas refinery town with a volatile, defiantly loving family. She recalls her painter mother, seven times married, whose outlaw spirit could tip into psychosis; a fist-swinging father who spun tales with his cronies–dubbed the Liars’ Club; and a neighborhood rape when she was eight. An inheritance was squandered, endless bottles emptied, and guns leveled at the deserving and undeserving. With a raw authenticity stripped of self-pity and a poet’s eye for the lyrical detail, Karr shows us a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.”

The Liars’ Club is a hard read. I’m kind of baffled by people who described this book as “funny” or “entertaining.” I love funny stuff (The Hangover! 30 Rock! David Sedaris!) but I had a hard time finding any humor, even black humor, in this book. The tone was dry, straightforward, and journalistic, for the most part, and considering this childhood was like a warzone, it fit. The descriptions of how tough sister Lecia is, or what a crybaby Karr herself is, were sort of cute, but also highlighted for me how alone these kids were. It is interesting to get an in-depth look at a different type of childhood, and people probably like reading about something that they’re NOT able to relate to. That’s primarily why I kept reading it. That, and the hope that somehow, magically, Karr’s parents would shape up and life for her and her sister would improve. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.)

Mary Karr

Something that surprised me was that Karr seemingly didn’t have any bitterness towards her mother. (Keep in mind, this is an emotionally unstable woman who was married seven times, drank herself silly, and burned all of her family’s possessions on the lawn.) Then I remembered that the majority of the book covers Karr from ages three to eight or nine, and doesn’t tend to delve too deeply past what a kid would have thought. I mean, when you’re little, you think your parents are infallible! I learned that Karr also wrote a memoir of her teenage/young adult years (Cherry), as well as her adult life (Lit), and starting thinking that maybe all three should have been combined into one book. Having so much space dedicated to such a short period of time was…too much.

And there are a few moments when I actually heard the screeching of rubber as my mind put the brakes on and said YIKES. Both of the sexual assaults, for example, and especially the second. How awful her life was almost becomes farcical.

If you’re sensitive to issues of child neglect, childhood sexual abuse, and alcoholism, there is no way in hell I would recommend this book to you. But if you’re interested in the answer to the question, “What if I were born to an alcoholic and an alcoholic/manic-depressive in a Texas oil town in the ’50s?”, then you’ll like The Liars’ Club. (And apparently, many people have–it was a New York Times Bestseller for over a year.)

Bookwanderer Rating: Two and a half stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: Think your childhood was bad? Wait ’til you get a load of this…


9 Responses to “Review: The Liars’ Club”

  1. 1 Christy February 9, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Yeah, I can’t say that I “enjoyed” Liar’s Club either, though I appreciated aspects of it. A memoir that I loved to pieces despite also being about a difficult childhood is Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. If you decide to make the memoir foray again, that would be my recommendation. 🙂

  2. 2 tarynwanderer February 9, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, Christy! I’ll be sure to check it out. I just did a quick scan on your blog and saw that you read and enjoyed Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto, so I’m thinking we might have similiar tastes!

  3. 3 candletea March 9, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    I was directed here by your current Teaser Tuesday post and I couldn’t resist reading your bad experiences with a memoir. I have to ask though, was it the subject manner or also the writing style that made you dislike the book? I can imagine reading a whole book on so short an amount of years would be difficult, especially because of the subject matter. I don’t think this is a book for me. Reading your line: “What if I were born to an alcoholic and an alcoholic/manic-depressive in a Texas oil town in the ’50s?” made me grin somehow, because I cannot imagine anyone asking themselves that question.

    • 4 tarynwanderer March 9, 2010 at 4:04 pm

      Haha, well, I’m glad my bad experience can result in someone else’s enjoyment! 🙂

      I think it was the subject matter, as well as my expectations going in, that made me dislike it. I was anticipating much more humor and light-heartedness, and instead it was very dark. I’m STILL baffled when people tell me it’s funny! And I’m not sure I would have liked it more had the tone been less straightforward and more padded or fluffy; honestly, I might have liked it less!

      However, all that being said, I’d be willing to give Karr’s other books a chance. I’ve heard good things about Lit.

  4. 5 Jenny December 9, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    While much of the book is heartbreaking, I found it to be extremely funny – mostly because there were many elements that I could relate to having grown up in a dysfunctional family myself. I thought it was a very good read.

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  1. 1 Teaser Tuesday (Mar 9)! « bookwanderer Trackback on March 9, 2010 at 8:34 am
  2. 2 Book Review: The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls « bookwanderer Trackback on January 16, 2013 at 10:19 am
  3. 3 100 All-Time Best Book Club Books - Trackback on March 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm

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