Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle Jeannette Walls THE GLASS CASTLE
by Jeannette Walls

Non-fiction: Memoir
Scribner, 2005
Paperback, 288 pages
Source: Purchased

Jeannette Walls had a childhood much different from most people’s. The daughter of a deadbeat dad and a free-spirited mother, she spent her early years bouncing around the US, “doing the skedaddle” whenever the rent money came up short. Although life seemed like a great adventure — her father, Rex, was a charismatic man capable of capturing his children’s imaginations and instilling them with a love of life — the Wallses faced devastating hardships. Rex couldn’t hold a job and spent every cent on liquor, and Mary, Jeannette’s mother, despised her domestic and motherly responsibilities.

The Glass Castle is Jeannette’s attempt to capture her childhood in all of its unique glory, chaos, and difficulty. Although she and her brother and sister were constantly hungry and often neglected, her family was one full of love.

This was a hard book to read. The treatment Jeannette and her siblings received at times was horrifying. To relay just a few incidents: Jeannette severely burned her body while cooking hot dogs on her own… at age three; her parents left her and her siblings in the car to bake in the Nevada heat while they spent hours in a bar; her parents refused to shut the doors of their house at night even after a pervert wandered in and touched Jeannette… because they didn’t have AC and they wanted the air to circulate; and when Jeannette confessed to Mary that her uncle had groped her, her mother totally brushed it off. Rex and Mary were NOT good parents… and yet they weren’t all bad. They were overflowing with love, and they taught their children to embrace life and to live without fear.

Walls does a fantastic job of capturing her family in all its complexity. Her portrayals of her parents and siblings are vibrant, layered, and dynamic. It must have been incredibly hard to write this book and expose to the world many of the facts of her youth. I think she is so brave to have written this book the way she did. She doesn’t make excuses for her parents; she presents them the way she remembers them and shows the reader that despite the bad times, there were good times, too. Her characters are beautiful and terrible. They are loving but incredibly flawed, and so, so human.

I didn’t love this book as much as I had expected to. Even though it was published eight years ago, I have heard from many people who absolutely loved this memoir. I went into it expecting to read something life changing. I really enjoyed it, but it didn’t change my life — although it absolutely gave me perspective on my own childhood problems. I might have been totally miserable in high school, but hey, at least I had indoor plumbing. I think my expectations were just too high, and I was hoping for something more profound than most books can deliver.

The Glass Castle was a very good read, though. It maybe didn’t change my life, but it was absorbing (how can you NOT continue reading in horror, wondering what bizarre, awful thing is going to happen next?) and well written. Walls is a strong storyteller, and her characters are beautifully drawn. Toward the end, she also makes some really interesting observations about choice and the ability to succeed. I don’t think this book will be a favorite of mine, but it was well worth the read.


14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  1. I read it time ago and it was absolutey shocking. Everything they went through… wow, was so hard, but as you say, you hate and love her parents anyway because they weren’t bad parents: they loved their children but their circumstances were special, as to say. And I have to say that I wanted to kill her dad when he stole they money she was saving, or her mother when she ate chocolate while the children had to look for food in the trash at school. That was tough.
    I felt the end also shocking: three of them succeed, but the youngest sister didn’t… 😦
    It’s a sad story, but full of hope anyway.

    • Very tough, but also inspiring. (I wanted to punch her dad when he did that, too.) The end was really moving; I’m glad Jeannette and two of her siblings overcame their childhoods and succeeded, but it was so sad that her younger sister had so much trouble — and that her parents chose poverty the way they did.

      • By the way, I read also the book about her grandmother, and I liked it very much too. She was just the opposite as Jeannette’s mother, you’ll see (if you want to read it!).
        That book is also inspiring; Jeannett’s grandmother was a fighter; a wonderful woman.

        • Half Broke Horses? I tried listening to the audiobook, but the narration was horrible. I would like to read it in print, though! Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

  2. Leah, The Glass Castle is a well written memoir indeed, but a very difficult read. I read it about a year ago and I remember putting it down several times to take a breather from the horror of the treatment of Jeanette and her siblings. I can’t say that I loved it; however, as a memoir writer, I learned a lot from Jeanette’s writing style and her gift of honesty.

  3. I am one of those who loved it. I certainly didn’t love what happened to Jeannette and her siblings, but there was something about it that I fell in love with. The writing, maybe; the fact that she overcame it all seemingly with flying colors; I don’t know. But I read it in 2005 or 2006 and I can still remember it like I finished it last week–I can’t say that about many of the books I read almost 10 years ago.

    I’m glad you at least liked it. 🙂

    • The way Jeannette and some of her siblings overcame their childhoods and succeeded later in life was really inspiring. I thought it was a very good book, and I’m glad I read it!

  4. My best friend in high school loved this book, but I’ve never read it. I’m don’t usually enjoy books that involve tough topics and I think the parents would just make me mad, so I think this one is probably not for me 🙂

  5. I read it recently, and while it didn’t change my life, it sucked me in in a way that memoirs usually don’t. I wanted to STRANGLE her parents, for sure. But I was also taken with the way she remained largely non-judgmental about their craziness. It definitely left me thinking and will probably stick with me for a long time.

    • Yes! The way she manages not to judge them is amazing. The ending will definitely stick with me… how Jeannette and some of her siblings did so well for themselves despite their upbringing, but her parents choosing poverty.

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