Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Title: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Scribner
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Julia Gibson
First line: I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.

The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls’s story of growing up in an odd and completely dysfunctional family. The book’s opening scene is Jeannette in a New York taxi, heading to a party in Manhattan. She looks outside and sees a homeless person rummaging through the trash. Not unusual for New York – except that this particular homeless person is Jeannette’s mother.

She then goes on to tell her story, starting with her first memory at age three. She was standing at the stove, cooking hot dogs in a frilly dress. The dress caught fire, and she spent six weeks in the hospital with burns that needed skin grafts. After she is back home, we find her once again cooking hot dogs for herself. Her mother, who is busy painting, responds with, “Good for you. You have to get right back on that horse.” Did I mention that she was three?

The Walls family lived for the first years of Jeannette’s life in the desert in California and Arizona. They lived in poverty, moving from place to place, sometimes having a home, sometimes sleeping outside under the stars. When they did stay in one place long enough for the children to attend school, Jeannette remembers rummaging in the trash in the girls’ rest room at school so that she could eat the leftovers that girls had thrown away from their lunches.

When her parents get the urge to move again, they end up in Welch, West Virginia, a coal mining town. Their “home” is a rundown shack without an indoor bathroom. The kids again starve, while their mother spends money on art supplies and hoarded chocolate bars, and their father spends their money staying drunk.

I know this sounds like a really depressing book, and parts of it were very heartbreaking, but Jeannette’s spirit and determination to make something better of her life, no matter what circumstances she found herself in, made it impossible to put down. And as abusive and neglectful as the Walls were, Jeannette isn’t bitter. In fact, you get the sense that her parents loved her and the other kids the best way they knew how. They just didn’t know how to be parents. Part of the reason for this is explained when they move to Welch and meet her father’s parents, though I never felt like I understood what made the mother the way she was.

Ms. Walls is a gifted storyteller, and she describes the events of her life from the perspective of her younger self. As she describes the scenes of her life, I could see her and her family in my mind’s eye. I wanted to shake her mother, throttle her father, and hug Jeannette. She writes her story with a clear eye for the reality of the awfulness of her childhood, but also with an affection for her family that comes through on every page.

This is a re-post of a review I wrote a couple of years ago.

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14 Responses to Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

  1. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads
    says:

    This has been on my audio list for a long time. I’ve heard such mixed reactions I haven’t yet decided to read it.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Beth – it isn’t necessarily a cheerful or easy book to get through, but it’s well worth it.

  2. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    This was one of my favorite audios last year. Wasn’t the narrator just wonderful? And not many books illicit the response I experienced…rage, laughter, empathy, awe. What could have been one of the billion “shitty childhood” memoirs, this one rises above and really raises the bar for everyone else.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Sandy – exactly! It’s definitely one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

  3. I read this several years ago and just loved it. I was amazed at the resilience of the Walls children.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathy – yes, it is amazing that they grew up to be such productive people!

  4. Rebecca Rasmussen
    Twitter: thebirdsistersgmail.com
    says:

    Great review! I’ve already read this, but I do love to read audiobook reviews for future roadtrip reference 🙂

  5. Melissa
    Twitter: avidreader12
    says:

    I loved this one too. It sounds like it would be so sad, but she manages to write it in such a captivating way.

  6. Kim
    Twitter: BookstoreK
    says:

    I read this right after reading The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott (which I loved, but my first biblio-crush was Little Women), between the two my tolerance and patience for self-absorbed, narcissistic parents is completely exasperated.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kim – I have Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott waiting on my to-review shelf – more terrible parents? Ugh.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I have this book on my shelves somewhere. My bookclub read it and I started it but never got past the first 20 pages or so. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book, I just was too busy with other things. Your review really makes me want to go and find that book and read it. What an incredible story!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathleen – it really is – the fact that she grew up to have such a productive life after the childhood she endured is just amazing.