14 June 2009

"The Glass Castle" Review With Spoilers

Each chapter of The Glass Castle, particularly the opening chapter, is like a beautifully written, self-contained short story. The first chapter describes Jeanette Walls on her way from her posh Fifth Avenue, New York apartment, in beautiful clothes to a glamorous event, when she looks out the window of her cab window and sees her mother scavenging through the rubbish. This is something her mother does. Her mother likes to live on the streets, seems to enjoy poverty, and refuses any real help from her children who have become more successful in the world. Seeing her mother like that, Walls is overwhelmed and, instead of going to the event, turns homeward, basically to freak out.

Through further chapters, each a description of some scene from her childhood, we learn that Walls' father was an alcoholic ne'er do well, with a brilliant mind he saw no point in using. Her mother was an artist who preferred painting above all other things. The result of this was that Walls and her siblings often went very hungry. They scrounged the bins at school, and by the time they were teenagers they were determined to leave their parents and make a life in New York. To them, New York's mean streets were easy pickings. Compared to what those kids knew, any low paying job they could get was a wonderful step up.

The book is really about Walls' father and her relationship with him. Once he dies, the story peters out and she doesn't really seem to have anything left to say.

The main tension in the book comes from trying to decide whether the parents are wonderfully liberated from the need for wealth and possessions, or just plain irresponsible. I tend to think they were just irresponsible, not even feeding their children although the mother was actually well able to get a job as an art teacher when she wanted to, the father was easily able to scrounge up a thousand dollars within a week when he felt motivated to, and the mother was, in any case, the owner of a property worth a million dollars. It seems to me, therefore, that the little 'pearls of wisdom' they dropped concerning the benefits of letting children grow up freely and independently were in this case just excuses for laziness. Witness the three year old Jeanette getting severely scalded while trying to boil her own hot-dogs, later falling out of a car, and being used by her father as 'bait' in one of his money scrounging adventures.

That's not why I didn't like the book, though.

It's a puzzle, given that I think the writing is so good, but I think I've hit on the answer. It's not quite honest.

Walls tells one little story after another of her childhood, but it doesn't add up to a journey. She doesn't reveal enough of herself to tell how her parents affected her inner life. That she had an inner journey we can surmise through her mention of a relationship with one man who was the complete opposite of her father, and whom she left after several years. Later she took up with someone that she was happy with, but beyond her happiness we don't know much about him. Whether she ever had children of her own, we don't know, and if not, whether this was in some part due to her childhood, we don't know.

On the whole, because of Walls' mention of her career, I suspect that she really wanted to keep her privacy but that there may have been some pressure on her, a curious public perhaps, that lead her to write a book that talks much and reveals nothing.

Just my feeling.

Morva Shepley

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