By JEANNETTE WALLS
They don’t make parents like they used to.
I’ve had a hard time jumping on the memoir bandwagon. I tried to do so with A Million Little Pieces, and then about 20 pages in it came out that James Frey had practically made the whole thing up. I felt so betrayed, I refused to finish the book. I’ve read other types of nonfiction, but somehow memoirs always seemed a little fake.
When I finished The Glass Castle at 3 a.m. this morning, I made a not to myself that if nothing else, people who write memoirs should be like Jeannette Walls: they should actually have an interesting life to write about. I’m looking at you, James Frey.
The trouble I had with Jeanette’s life is that it sounds almost too heroic. From a young age she seems self-sufficient, overly courageous and kind. These things are lovely, and I like seeing them in a character, but where is the moment that she does something human? When does she make a mistake or wonder about what could have been?
The Glass Castle follows Jeanette and her brothers and sisters through their childhood with two unconventional and fairly neglectful parents. OK, they’re horribly neglectful. Their father, Rex Walls, seems always to be chasing a dream, such as finding gold, and dragging his wife and children around the country in his foolhardy search (then coming home drunk every so often and smashing something). Jeanette’s mother, meanwhile, retreats into her paintings, valuing a job and feeding her children less than easing her self-pity and indulging in herself (SPOILER: At one point in the novel, she foregoes selling a diamond ring that would have bought food for a month and insists that the ring will do more good improving her self-esteem than feeding them). Neither one of the parents seems all that interested in feeding their children or even providing a non-leaking roof over their head.
The Walls children are scrappy, and as they grow to lose faith in their father and mother, they create their own solutions to life’s problems. Jeannette begins cooking food for herself over a fire while she’s still a toddler, and the children are able to manage family financial matters better than their parents by the time Jeanette is twelve.
Despite all this, in writing her story, Jeannette is able to make Rex Walls and even her mother, Rose Mary, likable. They supply their children with a constant stream of books and encourage an instinct for self-sufficiency that the children are all able to use as a life-raft while their parents create the perfect storm around them. It makes for fast, interesting reading and a realism that is rarely found in the best of nonfiction books.
Jeanette relates plenty of moments wherein she is abused, neglected, pushed to the side, and it’s clear that she’s endured more than her fair share. But her constant can-do scrappiness almost begins to seem incredible by the end of th
e book. I’m not saying that I disbelieve any moment in the book. Rather I think she might be omitting moments of which she, herself, might be ashamed. She seems forever to be standing innocently by while someone else imposes misery on her, yet everything she tries seems to turn out improbably well (except the cooking with a fire as a toddler, but then you’d probably guessed that).
The thing that makes a memoir a memoir is that you see every side of a person. You don’t only see their incredible struggle for success; you also see their flaws. Although Jeanette shows the flaws of most of the rest of her family (and still convinces the reader to root in their corner), she seems blissfully free of flaws. This might be her book, and the focus is certainly on her parents’ shortcomings rather than her own (as it should be), but can she seriously be without any real shortcomings? The novel briefly mentions her divorce to her first husband, but it fails to show the strife, the decisions, the heartbreak, possibly the disillusionment that went along with this. In fact, in matters that concern Jeannette herself alone, we know very little. She mentions having landed jobs in New York, but we never see that tension or even how she was clever enough to land these jobs. In short, The Glass Castle seems to lack the self-exploration I expect in a memoir.
Apart from this, Jeannette Walls’s story is fascinating. It’s a true testament to scraping by on ingenuity and hard work. I just wish she’d worked a little harder to reveal herself.