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.”

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