Book Review: The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls

I’m probably one of the last people on Earth to realize this…but this book is straight-up PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE. And I loved every moment of it, even when I was clutching at my heart in spasms of emotional pain.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls, is a memoir about growing up in a loving but completely dysfunctional family. Her father, Rex, concocts fanciful stories and get-rich quick schemes, but fails to provide his family with enough money for food or clothing; any money they manage to save goes toward booze. Her mother, Rose Mary, has artistic pretensions and a teaching degree, but refuses to work for very long even when her children are going hungry at home, viewing physical and emotional hardship as “an adventure.” The family moves from place to place, often under the cover of darkness and at the drop of a hat.

Throughout the book, I was left physically reeling in disappointment and shame at the antics of her alcoholic father and flighty-to-the-point-of-neglectful mother, just like young Jeannette herself. Rex steals money from his wife (and from his children) in order to get drunk, whereupon he becomes argumentative and menacing; Rose Mary privileges fanciful objects and owning distant land over the well-being of her children, and remains with Rex despite Jeannette herself begging her mother to leave him. While it’s difficult to tell for sure, there may be some undiagnosed mental illness in the family; her father showed some characteristics of depression and paranoia, but because he didn’t trust doctors, any conclusions that the reader comes to are unconfirmed.

Ultimately, it is hard to feel sympathetic for Rex and Rose Mary. There were times when I wanted to reach into the book and throttle them, actually–there is one scene where the children haven’t eaten anything but popcorn for three days and Rose Mary hides a chocolate bar from them, that made me angrier than is probably healthy–but Jeannette herself avoids any overt blame or bitterness. She is remarkably calm and even-handed in her presentation of her life, and I had to wonder if she has had extensive therapy in order to get to this point. (I’d need therapy for sure if I’d lived through even half of what Walls had.)  But starting from childhood, Jeannette is a staunch defender of her father, even when he lets her down again and again; she remains in contact with both parents and tries to help them even when she has become successful and they are homeless by choice.

You will, however, be left marveling at the strength and drive of Jeannette and her siblings.  Jeannette and her brother Brian and sisters Lori and Maureen stick together, caring for one another, and despite their non-traditional upbringing, the children are all highly intelligent and do well in school (when they are enrolled, that is).

Through single-minded dedication, they each manage to escape to New York City and find work that they are passionate about (illustration, journalism, law enforcement) and that actually pays living wages. They are one of the most amazing sibling support systems I’ve ever read about, and you can’t help cheering for them once they have left their toxic home environment to become happy, healthy, and successful. But their parents never quite leave their lives entirely, moving to New York themselves and disrupting their lives, despite each of their children trying to help them in their own ways.

It’s a bit ironic that I enjoyed this book so much. I’ve started previously that I haven’t enjoyed the memoirs I’ve read. In fact, reading (and intensely disliking) Lit, by Mary Karr, was one of my impulses for starting up a book blog in the first place.

Why does Walls succeed where, for me, Karr fails? I don’t know that even I can explain my thinking. Perhaps because with Walls’ account, we follow her from childhood into adulthood, and are allowed some measure of closure? Walls has experience as a journalist, so maybe her more straightforward accounting of events is what made her story palatable to me. Karr’s seemed more wry; I couldn’t get a handle on her tone, and I couldn’t help but feel that I probably wouldn’t like her very much (whereas I would totally want to sit around and talk about books with Walls). Or it could be that Walls at least had the support of her siblings, where generally Karr was on her own. All I know is that I think Walls is a wonderful writer, and that The Glass Castle is an amazing story of a life filled with struggle that ultimately has a satisfactory conclusion.

Reading The Glass Castle fulfills part of my list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”


6 Responses to “Book Review: The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls”

  1. 1 lennonsundance January 16, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I have yet to read this but have had it recommended for years now. I’m a CNF writer that deals with difficult issues in my work, so I have heard this memoir will speak to me. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. 2 Martine Frampton January 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    This sounds fascinating, thanks so much for your thoughtful review. am currently reading A Widow’s Story a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, and feel like I might need a bit of light reading after I have finished it:-)

    • 3 tarynwanderer January 20, 2013 at 12:28 pm

      Oates is another favorite of mine, so I completely understand needing a bit of a palate cleanser after reading her! The Glass Castle is wonderful, to be sure, but it does tackle some fairly serious themes–childhood neglect, attempted sexual abuse, alcoholism–so if you’re looking for an unambiguously cheerful read, I might start with something else first!

  3. 4 Heather January 20, 2013 at 9:34 am

    I read this a few years ago and found it incredibly compelling but heartbreaking at the same time. I had no understanding for her parents’ actions whatsoever, and was left ultimately feeling almost proud of Walls for how she’d managed to come out of her situation so successful.

    • 5 tarynwanderer January 20, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      Yes, I felt super-proud of Walls and her siblings as well, despite not being related to them/knowing them at all! I tried to be sympathetic to her parents, especially regarding her father’s alcoholism, but it was very difficult for me. Walls herself seems to have come to some sort of healthy closure about it, which is pretty amazing.

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