This month, we all gathered at Steph’s lovely apartment to celebrate Cinco de Mayo…I mean, discuss her pick The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.
The last in our series of memoirs (for now), this was my personal favourite. Before Steph announced her pick, I’ll confess I had never heard of Jeannette Walls. For the benefit of readers who may be in the same boat, Jeannette is a successful American journalist who has now left the industry to write full time, and The Glass Castle spent 100 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Paramount bought the rights to The Glass Castle years ago and this past March it was announced that everyone’s favourite girl-crush, Jennifer Lawrence, will be playing Walls. I’m not sold on this casting choice from an aesthetic point of view, but J sure can sell a movie.
As a reader, I love great characters and to me a great character is one that doesn’t fulfill an archetype of protagonist or antagonist but poses constant challenges for how we should feel about them and their actions. Of course, all the “characters” in this memoir are (or were) real people, but that doesn’t take away from Walls’ ability to portray their nuances so artfully. In fact, I would argue that it’s even more difficult to write in a complex way about people you have a close relationship with because personal biases will naturally want to find their way in.
The real question, and for me the true value, at the centre of this book was how we felt about Rex and Rose Mary Walls, parents to Jeannette and her siblings Lori, Brian, and Maureen. Conclusions ranged from complete hatred and disgust to understanding, confusion, and compassion. There are many good things about Rex and Rose Mary, and we also find out about their upbringings briefly, but there are also many choices they made that we disagreed with.
And so we came down to the real issue – how do we relate to someone whose philosophy on life is so jarringly different from our own? Were these parents fit to have children? Were they dealing with mental illness at any point? We know that Rex was an alcoholic, so what are we willing to forgive in him and are we able to extend the same courtesy towards Rose Mary? Were they good parents, and what does that idea mean to each of us? I found it was a lot easier to empathise with Rex due to his upbringing and issues with addiction (and many others felt the same) so what does that say about what we value on personal as well as social levels? There are a lot of questions and for me very few definitive answers. Some of our members believed that what we read amounted to child abuse, and certainly at times I would not contest that. Other areas, however, are greyer for me.
This leads very nicely into a discussion of our conceptualization of what is normal. We agreed that children often think that their family is normal growing up and sometimes the realization will dawn that aspects of their lives are anything but. In this interview Jeannette discloses that this came for her around the age of eight. Of course, we all know that normal changes across time and space – what was normal in Jeannette Walls’ West Virginian childhood of the seventies may not seem normal to Canadian twenty-somethings of different socioeconomic status in 2013. The level of poverty we read may seem other-worldly, but sadly this is the reality of life for many families – and not just those in faraway places. Is it normal for Rose Mary to choose homelessness – or does this choice point to something being “wrong” with her mental processes? Of course, when we really come down to it the answer says more about what we think of poverty and homelessness (as well as homeless people) than Rose Mary Walls.
My one qualm with the book was the early chapters, simply because I find it difficult to believe that Walls has such a clear memory of events that occurred as early as age 3. Certainly they are fairly traumatic (read: memorable), however the recounting of details such as conversation leaves me a bit skeptical. Other UBC members found the formula of the chapters repetitive, or wished we had spent more time with Jeannette in her adult years, but I was not of the same mind. Maybe we can hope that another book about her life will be published once the movie is released.
At the end of it all, our conclusion was about as unanimous as it gets in the Unputdownable Book Club – everyone rated in the range of a 4/5. Considering how discerning we’ve become over the almost three years (!!!) of monthly meetings, I’d call this a resounding endorsement.
Have you read The Glass Castle or any of Jeannette’s other works? Let me know what you thought in the comments or on twitter @UnputdownableBC or @echezick.