Krenzel's Reviews > The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
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's review
May 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: ala-notables

"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who seems to be mentally ill. Walls begins the book by explaining what has prompted her to write about her family: after she has "made it" and become a successful writer living in New York, she comes across her mother picking trash out of a dumpster and, in shame, slinks down in her taxi seat and pretends not to see or know her. Later, Walls confronts her mother, asking what she is supposed to tell people about her parents, and her mother replies, "Just tell the truth. That’s simple enough."

Of course, "The Glass Castle" is anything but simple, as Walls attempts to come to terms with her upbringing. The first third of the memoir deals with her young childhood on the west coast, as her parents live as nomads, moving frequently between desert towns, always seeking the next adventure. Walls' mother is the key figure we meet here: an artist and a writer, she seems to live in her own world and doesn't express much concern in the practical realities of raising her children. In a key passage, Walls' mother takes the kids with her to give them art lessons, as she paints and studies the Joshua tree. Walls tells her mother of her plan to dig up the tree, replant it, and protect it so it can go straight. Walls' mother admonishes her, "You'd be destroying what makes it special. It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives its beauty." This appears to be Walls' mother's philosophy of life – looking for the next struggle – as the family willingly gives up its nice residence in Phoenix that Walls' mother had inherited from her family to move to the father's home town – a depressed coal town in West Virginia.

The family's time in West Virginia makes up the next third of the story and depicts a depressed life in a depressed town. It is in West Virginia where the family seems to drift apart, particularly Walls' father, who up to this point, had been worshipped and revered by his daughter. Like Walls' mom, her dad has a lot of imagination; while he takes odd jobs that never last long, his real dream is to strike it rich with one of his inventions. He promises, once he has found his gold, that he is going to build a "glass castle" – his most special project – a great big house for the family to live in. Once in West Virginia, Walls and her brother figure they will make the best of the situation, and they spend a month digging a hole in the ground to serve as the foundation for the glass castle. But because the family can't pay for trash collection, their father instructs them instead to use the hole for the family's garbage. Although she has always been her father's defender, Walls grows disillusioned with her father, eventually telling him he will never build the glass castle.

Determined not to end up like her parents, Walls moves to New York, where the last third of the book transpires. It is here that Walls "makes it," graduating from college, gaining employment as a writer, marrying a rich husband, and settling into a Park Avenue apartment. Interestingly, while Walls has rejected her parents' lifestyle, it is now their turn to reject hers. Her father refuses to visit the Park Avenue apartment, while her mother, after visiting the apartment, asks Walls, "Where are the values I raised you with?" At this point, it is a mystery what values Walls actually possesses. By crafting the memoir around stories of her childhood, we as readers are often troubled, not just because of the content of the stories but because the stories don't provide much in the way of reflection or introspection. It is, in fact, unclear what Walls actually does value – will she continue to identify success with the material trappings of her "normal" life in New York, or will she ultimately reject the conventional life, as her parents did? Without more reflection from Walls, particularly in this concluding section of the book, readers are left to their own interpretation of "the truth" about her parents – are they just a drunk father and a lazy mother, or is there something more to it?

The "Glass Castle" is an addicting page-turner that should captivate any reader. However, without this reflection and introspection from Walls about her childhood, the book misses an opportunity to make a more lasting impact on readers and ultimately fails to reach the level of a work like "Angela’s Ashes." In the end, it is up to readers to make up their own minds about "the truth" of Walls' parents and her upbringing and what it all means. I chose to discount some of her parents' flaws and instead read this book as an homage to her parents. To me, the key passage in the book is when Walls visits a classmate's home in West Virginia and sees the empty walls in the house (in stark contrast to her own home, which is cluttered with paintings and books and decorations) and rejects the notion that her classmate's father, passed out on the couch, bares any resemblance to her own father. After Walls recounts the story to her family, her mother replies that she should show compassion for her classmate because not everybody has "all the advantages you kids do." Although the statement is ironic on its face, as the family fights over the crumbs of a chocolate bar, the distinction is clear: Walls' family may not provide her with much in the way of tangible goods, but they give her things that are more lasting – a belief in herself, a passion for reading and writing, an appreciation for things a lot of us take for granted, and most of all love. In the end, it was not important whether her parents actually built her a glass castle. It was that they gave her the idea of a glass castle. By overcoming her shame for her parents and writing this memoir, Walls seems to recognize this truth about her parents – that, like the Joshua tree, there was beauty in their struggle.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
May 8, 2008 – Shelved
June 6, 2008 – Shelved as: ala-notables

Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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Alissa Great review!

message 2: by Noreen (new)

Noreen Unlike you i see that Jeanette Walls knows that people who have gone through similar situations would understand that she was no longer angry with her parents for things they did to her and her siblings. She was working through it at the time. If you had grown up in a family where your parents actually took food out of your mouth as your belly ached for it you would understand. You are angry with them when come to realize what they are doing, then as you start to reach a time in your when you can get away, you do. Eventually you forgive them for your own well being. She has it in her to be thankful for the years when they let her imagination fly but at the same time she is happy to have the life she is in now. You either want to be homeless or you don't. I think she does not!

message 3: by Mike (new)

Mike Noreen wrote: "Unlike you i see that Jeanette Walls knows that people who have gone through similar situations would understand that she was no longer angry with her parents for things they did to her and her sib..."

Noreen, I understand what you are saying, but great memoirs make you understand the things you haven't experienced. So while I respect the fact you were able to connect with the book, this review is accurate from an objective standpoint.

Mary Thanks for a Wonderful Review, Krenzel! You could "quit your day job" and step right into Roger Ebert's shoes!

message 5: by Bob (new)

Bob Cull It's been awhile since I read the book and this review reminded me of a lot of the things I liked about it. I don't think that she and her siblings succeeded in spite of their parents, in a way, I think they succeeded because of their upbringing. They learned at an early age to fend for themselves and to focus on what they wanted to achieve working as hard as they had to in order to get there. The sense I got was that while they did not want to be like their parents they knew that they had become the people they are in large due to who their parents were. I actually remember feeling that she felt a deep affection for her father in particular, understanding his weaknesses and forgiving him for them. It is truly an inspiring book.

message 6: by Joi (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joi Wilson Excellent job on the review.

message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary I am near the end of the W Virginia segment of the book (it's not exactly the page turner you say, to me it feels like a stream of anecdotes tacked on to one another). Your review I believe is more meaningful than the book!

Kathleen Kilmer great review. You are right, the reader s really needed to understand Jeannette better, and she doesn't give that part of herself away really at all. The picture of her and her Mom on the couch in her mom's apt is the most telling I think. To go through a childhood like that, wow we reaLLY want to understand the adults the children become. By the way her Mom was a really trip. Youwanted to strangle her for her self centered ness and then she would come up with some truly insightful comment, what a character.

Marie B You verbalized a lot of what I felt after reading this book. Wonderful summary and spot on about leaving us wondering how the author felt about her parents. I'd imagine the author probably left that out intentionally - as I understand it, her mother lives with her now and so it makes sense that she might not want to rock the boat. I agree though that the kids felt loved, and were taught many things including life lessons that other children do not learn under better financial circumstances (less)

Saniya Khan I don't understand what struggles you mentioned in the end Walls parents made for their children.

Kathy Prendergast Walls' parents were abusive, neglectful, self-indulgent narcissists, and they didn't even have the excuse of lack of education or financial resources; its is natural for her to still retain a sense of love and loyalty towards them but nothing excuses their outrageous neglect...just having f***ing paintings on the wall of a home doesn't make one a good parent, and thinking it does, makes one nothing but an elitist snob. Walls naturally makes excuses and justifications for her parents but as a reader I cannot and will not.

Kathy Prendergast Also, good parents don't let their children get almost burned to death because they're hungry and trying (at age 3) to cook dinner which her parents are too damn lazy to do, or hoard chocolate bars for themselves while their children go hungry, as her mother did, or drunkenly pimp their barely-pubescent daughters out to other men, as Walls' father did. I was raised by snobbish , elitist , self-indulgent "artistic" parents who frequently physically and emotionally neglected me and my sisters too, not anywhere to the extent that Walls' parents did,, but still, the ocasional interesting conversations and mental stimulation you get from growing up with such parents does not make up for the neglect, believe me. Having highly intelligent parents is overrated. I'd much rather have grown up with dull average parents that actually paid attention to me and helped to prepare me for life in the real world.

R.A. Schneider Your comments about "lack of introspection" capture this primary weakness, much more succinctly than I did in my review. I felt she did not risk much in writing it after she "made it" and she didn't seem to have learned that much from the stories. A bit of poverty voyeurism.

Victoria I agree with Kathy. I'm on page 186 and angry with the neglect of the parents. I cannot believe the life the children went through. I'm so angry that I have to stop reading at this point. Maybe tomorrow will

message 15: by Rebecca (new) - added it

Rebecca Zahn Great review!

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