I just finished reading The Glass Castle. This memoir, by Jeannette Walls, recounts the hardships of a life where moving often, changing jobs, lies, alcohol, lack of food, few showers, and more were the norm. This is not a professional book review, and I do realize that many of the other reviews, inlcuding New York Times review of The Glass Castle, boast of the excellency by which Walls recounts her story, and the vivid memories she captures. The story itself is sure to draw out a great deal of anger and sadness, and the reader is not likely to put the book down until there are no more pages to read. For that, I would say it’s a great story. It lacks, on the other hand the relationship between its narrator reflecting back on the life of her main character, a relationship necessary for the story for her readers to empathize with her rather than just have anger toward the events she describes.
In The Glass Castle, Walls shares her story as one recounting the events of her life with little to no personal reflection on those events. While we are driven to anger upon learning at the beginning that Walls, at the age of three is left to cook her own meals while her mother is preoccupied in the opposite room, Walls herself, seems distant from the memory and has very little emotion in recounting the event for her audience. To give Walls some credit, there is a small sense of pain as she lies in the hospital soaking up all the love, concern, and care she receives from the nurses, and we can infer that this sort of love is absent at home. This, however, is one of only moments in the book where I felt as though the narrator connected with her character and as the memoir continues through a myriad of other events, that connection fades drastically. The last section, New York is rushed, lacks details and sequence, and Walls is more detached then ever with her characters. I had the feeling she was just trying to find a place to end the book altogether.
Walls’ detachment to her main character is a mystery to me since the main character is herself, and since there is such great emotion, compassion, and sympathy to be drawn out of the reader regardless of whether the reader can make that connection. Perhaps, figuratively, this is the lesson she learned after catching fire to herself, when her dad explained her the place in a flame that lies between turbulence and order. In other words, it could be that at a young age, Walls learned that the only way to find order is to detach from the disorderly circumstances of her life. Walls has triumphed over the circumstances of her life. The idea to get away to New York was the best choice she made, despite discouragement from her dad and from the school counselor. She became the underdog of the family as well, and rose above that. We learn what she did to make life happen for herself. However, we know little of the pain, the struggle, and the deep-felt hurt she experienced in the process. Additionally, we only learn of two people who held a positive influence: her high school teacher and one professor from college. On the other hand, she neglects to share the extent of their impact and memory in her life. Walls also neglects to develop other characters such as any friends she made in New York, Lori’s friends are mentioned but only in a fleeting moment, and she doesn’t tell us much about Eric or her current husband John, who have surely been highly influential.
We first learn of the turbulence when, after escaping from the hospital with half-healed burns, the family decides to do the “skedaddle” without any knowledge of where they will end up. We become sad for the first time when the cat is dropped off on the side of the road, abandoned. We are angered when the kids are neglected while dad spends his days at the poker tables, and again when they are told they can play wherever they wish and where the only rule is to be home when the street lights come on at night, and when they are forced to silence for 14 hours back of a U-Haul truck during another “skedaddle.” While Lori suggests at an early age that she is exhausted from all the moving around, Jeannette doesn’t seem to be much affected. She’s a daddy’s girl, and daddy, in her mind, is a hero, an intelligent, intellectual genius who never misses an answer. She knows he has the potential to impact change in the world, in the universe, and the glass castle he promises her will no doubt be a piece of that change. The only hindrance is the bottle. But for Jeannette, he may just have the will to quit, at least for a season. Mom is burdened by all of the kids. A free, independent spirit, who just didn’t want to spend her life child rearing, somehow ends up with four children. She is forced to put her own life, her own dreams behind her and she takes every advantage she has to make that clear to the kids. I wonder if hanging up her paintings in their shack of a home, at times, 4 paintings deep from the wall, was a way to remind the children what it was she had to sacrifice to make a good home for them. And, a good home was often without food, or with only the butter to eat, or rotting meat, or maggot infected flesh due to the lack of electricity they needed to turn on the refrigerator.
It’s not surprising that in such a rush to end the memoir, the story ends abruptly, and unsatisfactorily. There are still so many complex and unresolved conflicts, such as what came about with Maureen. I thought maybe I could look into some of the questions I had by doing a bit of my own research. I googled a few things, including a few of the cities where Walls lived as a child. That gave me more insight into the conditions of her living. I also attempted to find pictures since none were included in the book. I had no luck finding any of the family members, except, of course, Walls, but none from her childhood. I suppose in all the turbulence, pictures were rarely taken or stolen from the annual school pictures. Nevertheless, every story has to have its end, especially when pages, printing, and dollars are involved. And life goes on for Jeannette, her siblings, and her mother, so I suppose some of the conflicts have yet to be resolved, and perhaps more conflicts have been created. Although, in my opinion, the memoir has it's need for improvement, I would score it a 6 out of 10 and still encourage everyone to read it, if not for the literary value, than at least to open up another world many may not be familiar with. As for the glass castle, the one that dad never got around to building, it has become a metaphor which, for Walls, represents a castle which, having taken control of her own fate at the age of 17, she built for herself, and dwells in today. It is the ability to make a better life for oneself rather than soaking up the pity of others while remaining in your own disparate and impoverished condition. For me, it is relevant in that it represents the hope I have for others, and myself the hope that a glass castle can be built by anyone who cares to put the time and effort into intentionally making life happen for oneself.
J Burgraff on August 20, 2011:
This is one of my favorite books all time and I think I may have to write a review as a counterpoint to yours for that very reason. I would give this book a ten out of ten. I believe the reason that Ms. Walls appears detached in the story, which I don't necessarily believe is the case, is because she wants you to attach for her, care for her so much we wish these things weren't happening. Ms. Walls trusts our intelligence. She doesn't tell us where to laugh, or where to cry, but by choosing the stories she chooses to tell us, we do laugh and we do cry. Ms. Walls knows how to use 'voice' more effectively than most writers writing today. I hope Stephanie V. revisits her idea to not read this book.
capalynn (author) from Roseville, CA on June 01, 2009:
Okay, so I just added a few things including a note stating that although I am not ranking it among my favorite memoirs, I still recommend it, "if not for the literary value, than at least to open up another world many may not be familiar with".
Stephanie V. on June 01, 2009:
Great book review! Although I would never pick up this book now knowing how unsatisfactory of a read it is, your review was very well written and interesting.