Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Glass Castle: Review

The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Published by Virago
Published in 2005
ISBN: 978-1-84408-182-0

I read this book for book club and purchased this book myself. I was not paid for this review. 

When a well-meaning parent who has done nothing more outrageous than apply some necessary discipline gets “I HATE you! You're ruining my life!!” thrown at them by their offspring it must really really sting. I'm sure that part of the parenting experience (of which I have not partaken as yet!) is to develop the ability to shake this kind of thing off but still. It's got to hurt. Especially when you happen across a memoir such as this about parents that really were, in many ways, ruining their kids' lives – yet these kids seem to raise far fewer protests in this book than the average teenager would in a calendar month.

When I first started thinking about this book I was in two minds as to whether this memoir displays the immense resilience of children or the worrying enmeshment that often happens within dysfunctional families. When you've been dragged from pillar to post by your emotionally immature and responsibility-shirking mother and father, experienced neglect, witnessed violence and endured the most abject poverty, to come out as well-adjusted and normal as Jeannette Walls is no mean feat. From the outside, it seems that despite the occasional rays of warmth and love that provide light relief throughout what is undeniably a very grim tale, the behaviour of her parents is unforgivable. You have to wonder how on earth she has come through all of this and been able to write such a balanced view of her life. In the end, however, I decided that although the enmeshment is definitely there, it would be doing this book an immense injustice to focus on that rather than on the resilience of Jeannette and her siblings.

The second in a family of four kids, Jeannette was daughter to Rex and Rose Mary – both highly intelligent people who simply did not fit within regular society. Rex dreamed of being an entrepreneur, of building his glass castle – a solar heated mansion for his family, of striking it rich in the gold mines but his addiction to alcohol as well as his near complete failure to apply himself left those dreams in the dust. Rose Mary was a prolific artist who just could not see the point of domestic chores and the hard work of raising four children when she could be working on her next painting. During Jeannette's childhood they lived a nomadic existence, moving from place to place across the desert until they finally, incomprehensibly, settled down in her father's loathed hometown of Welch – a damp and by all accounts fairly dire small town in West Virginia in the vice-like grip of joblessness and poverty. This is where they remain for the majority of Jeannette's adolescence and where, I feel, the magic slowly drains out of her view of her parents, especially her father whom she had always idolised.

In an interview about this book, Jeannette points out that although some people may see the concept of the glass castle as just another of her father's drunken promises that was inevitably broken, you can also choose to see it as a hope for the future. It's all a matter of perspective. Despite this viewpoint being incredibly hopeful and uplifting, personally I can't buy into it. Her story made me very angry, frustrated me beyond belief and broke my heart. I despised her parents for their selfishness and the pain they had visited upon their own children – the best part of the whole story in my view was the fact that she and two of her siblings, Lori and Brian, banded together to help each other escape from their destitution and build a better life for themselves in New York. For me, the hopeful thing is that these kids got out and went on to flourish proving that nobody is necessarily defined by their circumstances or their past if they are given a chance to break free of it. I suspect that everyone who reads this will have their own reaction to it based on their life experiences which is what makes this book so worthy of picking up and reading.

This book probably wouldn't be a good choice if you're looking for for something light. It is heavy-going and for some people it will touch a raw nerve but above all it is an unforgettable tale of the strength of the human spirit. It's a book that will stay with me for a very long time.


  1. I also read this book for book group. For two different book groups, and it made for some very interesting conversation. On the one hand, it makes you feel really good about your own parenting. On the other hand, yes, I was amazed at the Walls compassionate treatment of her parents. That would be hard, I think. Her next book is about her grandmother, the one alluded to in the book who was actually quite wealthy and had led a very interesting life in her own right.

  2. I very much enjoyed reading this, although enjoy is maybe not the right word. I felt so sorry for the siblings and so proud that they managed to overcome their terrible upbringing.

    Of course the parent were totally at fault. No excuses.

  3. I very much enjoyed reading this, although enjoy is maybe not the right word. I felt so sorry for the siblings and so proud that they managed to overcome their terrible upbringing.

    Of course the parent were totally at fault. No excuses.

  4. This is one of my favorite memoirs. You should read Half Broke Horses - she originally wanted to write about her mother but ended up writing about her mother's mother instead. I loved the Glass Castle, but wasn't tempted by Half Broke Horses for a long time because it seemed boring... I was wrong. It's not as good, but I think gave some more insight on why her parents turned out the way they did (well, kinda, there's no excuse).

  5. I'm not a big fan of memoirs normally, but I loved this one. Half Broke Horses (her next book) is wonderful too!

  6. Sounds like an interesting book which I will probably read. But people might have very selective views about what happens to them, and what sounds horrendous from one is often quite OK to someone else, or actually totally different. That's why I always think family therapy should be done with the whole family not just with one person who might have a very unusual view of what has gone on in the family. Anyway it is interesting.....

  7. Robyn - It sure made for some very interesting conversation at our book club! We were talking about how she can be so nice about her parents and someone pointed out that it's all to do with intention - her parents were terrible but they never intended to do any harm. Which made a lot of sense to me and balanced my feelings about that point of the book somewhat.

    Leeswammes - I agree they were at fault, entirely, but like I just said to Robyn, it is a little (and I mean LITTLE) but more forgivable seeing as though didn't do it intentionally to hurt their kids, which is a lot better than some outright abusive parents who hurt their kids with malicious intent... I was cheering for them the whole way - I could have throttled the father for stealing the money from them though.

    Christa - I reckon about half our book club at least will be reading that! I will be for sure. Knowing as much as I do now about their family, I'd like to dig a little deeper and see what might have lain at the root of the troubles.

    Melissa - Another vote for Half Broke Horses! It's a definite for the 2012 reading list then :)

    Jenny - You're right - sometimes there can be skewed points of view about reality within dysfunctional families, usually as a coping mechanism I imagine. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Let me know if you read this book and what you think of it :)

  8. I love Jeanette Walls' writing, but The Glass Castle was really hard for me to get through because I was so angry at her parents. I lost sympathy for her father after he hauled her into that scene at the bar where she was nearly assaulted. Her mother's actions also filled me with rage. I think my reaction was compounded by my irritation with the many reviews I saw from readers who were like "Wow, these parents were such free spirits! Maybe it's the world that is screwed up, not them!" I had the same feelings when reading Angela's Ashes (in fact, I couldn't finish that book). Now I tend to steer clear of memoirs by people who had to deal with loved ones who were either unable or unwilling to get help for their mental illnesses or addictions. I was actually surprised by my reaction because I'm usually able to handle books about difficult topics.