Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a marvel of a memoir: a remarkable story of a materially impoverished yet highly intellectual family, told in the humane and empathetic voice of one of the daughters, Jeannette.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who loved it: more than 2.5 million copies are in print, the book spent over 100 weeks on the NYT Bestseller List, and it has 1,330 mostly five-star customer reviews on Amazon.com to boot.

Here’s the description:

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

It will resonate with different types of people: those who were raised in poverty, those who feel at once very angry and very grateful about their parents, or simply those who can appreciate good writing and feel grateful anew for their favorable number in the ovarian lottery (that’s me). I highly recommend it.

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Here’s Laura Miller on a new book on the history of memoirs. It touches on the two questions I always ask myself when reading memoirs: Is it true? How much does truthfulness matter?

Benjamin Kunkel three years ago wrote about memoirists. He says the motto of the typical contemporary memoirist is: “I survived that. Unwittingly, I had earned a Ph.D. in survival.”

8 Responses to Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  1. The Writer says:

    This was a pretty amazing read. I remember rooting for her throughout the whole book, hoping she would make it through unscathed.

  2. Chris says:

    Absolutely amazing book, probably the first book that made me cry multiple times as I read it.

  3. Grace Boyle says:

    This book was absolutely phenomenal. I think hearing her life’s story as raw and unadulterated truth was part of it.

  4. sfordinarygirl says:

    Her pure and raw honesty is commendable and amazing. It made me appreciate my upbringing and grateful for what I have.

    I highly recommend Mary Karr (she’s written three memoirs chronicling her childhood, struggle with alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism) and Rick Bragg’s (former New York Times reporter) memoir “all over but the shoutin.” He doesn’t like to classify it as a memoir but it fits the type.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes Bragg is excellent.

  6. Lorena Brinch says:

    I have to wonder if my comment will ever show up on your blog as I refuse to increase by one the 1,330 number of “mostly five-star customer reviews.” I just finished the book a few minutes ago and found that I was horrified that throughout the entire book, Jeannette consistently defended her mother and her father despite their selfish, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, and abusive way of life. This pair of self-proclaimed “savants,” should never have procreated as neither of them, in their “brilliance” ever understood the basic concepts parenting. Neither were protectors of their children, neither were providers, neither loved their children unconditionally, neither showed their children how to be responsible, productive members of society and neither EVER placed their children’s needs before their own. Not once throughout the entire book did either self-sacrifice for their children. These two despicable “human beings” (and I use that term loosely) should not be ultimately immortalized in a memoir; a special effort should be made to FORGET them! I applaud Jeannette Walls for writing about her life and her struggles to overcome hardship, but I’m deeply disappointed that not even in the end, did she ever condemn her parents in the same fashion her parents, by pure choice and selfishness, condemned Jeannette and her siblings to poverty, poor healthcare, freezing, terrible hygiene, putrescence, ridicule, molestation and physical abuse. There was no “triumph” in this memoir and no heroine. There was only someone getting paid to describe abusive parents and the successful running away from them.

  7. Mark Brophy says:

    This is the book that every Obama supporter should read because the author describes what it is really like to be poor. Most Democrats have no idea.

  8. Cathy Kettle says:

    I too thought Obama must have read this. However, after paraphrasing the book to my husband, I am feeling perhaps I have been decieved. A 2 carat diamond, oil fields in Texas ~ 2 million- no heat, pets freezing, no bathrooms, sexual predators- up in the room in the bar with a stranger and her dad encouraging it – I am starting to wonder if all the saddness in the book has clouded my sense of absurdity- to think that parents as well read and showing very good understanding of life could live it this way – perhaps if she explained what happened to the 2 million or the 8 thousand diamond or the property in Phoenix – just does not add up

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