Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about crazy family members, and I said, "It could be worse! Have you read The Glass Castle?" Schadenfreude is one of my favorite things - feeling better about myself by seeing other people's misfortunes, and this memoir is the Queen of Schadenfreude.

Ms. Walls at age 3 was sent to the hospital with burns over half her torso, that she got when her dress caught on fire while she was cooking hot dogs for herself for lunch. She was 3 and using the stove unsupervised. And her parents are more upset that one of the nurses gave her a piece of gum. Things go downhill from there. There are more fires to come (yes plural), along with starvation, evictions, alcoholism, molestation, homelessness, and much more craziness. Her mother is an artist who doesn't believe in disciplining or coddling her children (or feeding them). Her father is a drunk who can't hold a job and thinks he's going to find gold. Her sisters and brother are in this insane situation with Jeannette, and they fend for themselves the best they can, sometimes eating margarine, working whenever they can from very young ages, and planning to get out of the house as soon as they can. Meanwhile, you get to watch the train wreck that is their childhood. From Phoenix to San Francisco to West Virginia, the problems accumulate as they go along, and are all the more frustrating for how easily they could be alleviated simply if Dad stopped drinking (and imagining that a get-rich-quick scheme is the best solution to life) or if Mom would just work (she's a certified teacher) and stop giving Dad money for alcohol and cigarettes.

From the very first paragraph you know that Jeannette does get out (and you suspect her siblings do as well) therefore the horribleness of her childhood is cut a bit, knowing she survives. And the Walls children certainly epitomize resiliency, but it's a shame they had to be quite so resilient. As I was reading I kept thinking, How can this get worse? And then it did.

Ms. Walls is a fantastic writer. I felt like I was there with her (although phenomenally grateful that I wasn't!) and the writing was so smooth and effortless. I hated the few times I had to put down the book, I ripped through it, constantly bugged my boyfriend by reading sections to him, and thoroughly loved this book. Riveting and evocative, I couldn't tear myself away from this memoir of the childhood from hell.

I have owned this book for so long I honestly don't remember where I got it. I could have bought it for book club, or gotten it free from a publisher many years before I reviewed books.


Anonymous said...

I've meant to read this book for a while now, but I think I'd have to be in the right mood for it. Thanks for reminding me!

Jeane said...

It was a fantastic book, but so sad. I think I was most shocked at the end, when the kids had got ahead in their lives and the parents still lived on the streets...

christa @ mental foodie said...

I love the Glass Castle - one of my favorite memoirs.

Have you read her second book, Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel? If not, I highly recommended it. I waited to read this for a long time, because I didn't think the premise sounded interesting (ranches? no thanks). Finally I gave in, because I really engaged Walls' writing and wanted to see if she was just a one-book-wonder. And I am glad I read it! I still like the Glass Castle better, but the 2nd book gave some background about her mum's mum, and shed a little bit of light about Walls' mum. After I finished reading it, I felt like I should re-read the Glass Castle to see if I can understand her parents better.

Here's my review of the 2nd book:

Carin Siegfried said...

@Christa, no I haven't read Horses yet but I do own it! I seem oddly to be reading a lot of Western books this year. Not sure why but maybe I should just go with it and have a theme to 2011!

Christy said...

I love how she and her siblings really looked out for each other, even though as you said, it's a shame their resilience was so strongly tested.

I also second the recommendation for Half-Broke Horses.

Bailey said...

I really loved this memoir; it was my favorite non-fiction book read in 2010! There's just something about her writing style. It felt genuine. Oh, and I 'third' the recommendation for Half Broke Horses. While TGC is still my favorite of the two, Half Broke Horses provides some interesting insight into Walls' family and their past.