24 August 2017

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

For some reason I started this book the same way I went into the movie adaption - skeptical. I had seen this "Heather's pick" on a variety of different Indigo tables and never seemed to read the back or find out more about it. I was pleasantly surprised with the adaptation, but felt pretty much "meh" about the book.

This memoir is small (304 pages) and super easy to get through. I bought it on sale for $15 and leant it to my mom before I went to Ireland. She finished it over the course of my trip (eight days) and it didn't take me long either.

The Glass Castle is about Jeanette Walls' childhood. She had an older sister (Laurie) and a younger brother (Brian) and sister (Maureen). It's a small miracle that any, let alone all, of the Walls children survived their childhood. Their parents are reckless wanderers and you can't help but wonder why they had children in the first place. The opening chapter is a description of Jeanette's first memory: being on fire.

I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes."

Jeannette Walls

She was like three years old and was cooking hot dogs over the stove by herself while her mother (who was aware of this) was painting in the other room. Jeanette's dress caught the burner and lit up. She was in the hospital for a few weeks with third degree burns, and she still has the scars to prove it. Her older sister was stung by a poisonous scorpion when she was barely old enough to walk. The others survive a variety of other injuries along the way 

And these aren't just bumps on the head or skinned knees ... and I don't want to sound like a lame-o or too judgey, but while I was reading this I couldn't help but be thinking the entire time that these parents are border-line negligent. I was talking about the book to a couple of people who had already read it and asked them if there ever comes a point where you feel some sympathy for the parents and they all responded "no."

One thing I found really interesting about this book was the idea of independence and needing to take care of yourself. What is really heart warming / endearing about this book is how the kids all stick so closely together. They are ALWAYS there for each other unlike their parents. It made me so happy because I am very, very close with my sister, and reading about this sibling camaraderie makes me so glad I'm not an only child.

But what really interested me was how as they begin to near early adulthood, they start to head to New York one at a time. There is a really heartbreaking moment in the movie where Jeanette leaves and you see the youngest Maureen sobbing in bed while Brian sits quietly with her. While they are all super close and would do anything to protect one another, they have to leave for their own well-being.

Once you'd resolved to go, there was nothing to it at all."

a scene from the movie adaptation starring Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, and Naomi Watts

What's interesting is that all of the children end up very well adjusted and all find pretty great jobs (writer, cop). The only one who seems to have a hard time is Maureen, the youngest by at least 5 years. She spends a lot of her childhood staying at other family's homes (she is beautiful and blonde) and then relies on the hospitality of many boyfriends in her teen / early adult years. But she ends up sort of losing her mind a bit and ends up moving to California - putting her on the other side of the country from the rest of the Walls clan. Her siblings worry that her difficulties have to do with them leaving her all alone with her parents, and you can tell these feelings of guilt stay with them for years.

The parents are interesting too though because you see how alcoholism looks through the eyes of a child, and how that changes as they grow older and come to understand it. I thought there were a lot of unanswered questions about the mother, but my own mom suggested that she thinks she was probably mentally ill in some capacity. Her mood swings seemed out of control and when she was down she was basically unable to function at all - she would spend weeks in bed crying.

Unfortunately I was sort of hardest on the mother ... the father seems to genuinely love them, and he humours them A LOT when he isn't piss-drunk. But the mom is so self-absorbed and uninterested in her children's well-being, that you wonder why she ever agreed to have children in the first place. There is a scene when Jeanette finally gets ready to leave for New York and is trying to comfort her mother by telling her she'll write, her mother responds with:

I'm not upset because I'll miss you. I'm upset because you get to go to New York and I'm stuck here. It's not fair."

I didn't LOVE this book. I kept waiting for it to pass back into Jeanette's adult years and talk about how her childhood shaped her and her siblings, but she never really gives you any detail on that. The majority of the book just lays out their experience from ~3 years old to college years, with a heavy focus on the childhood years. I don't know what I expected from this book really, but in the end I felt like I didn't take anything away from it.

I would definitely recommend the movie though. Woody Harrelson is an phenomenal actor and does such a great job playing Rex Walls. Brie Larson is obviously also extremely talented and gives it a good go. Also Max Green from New Girl plays Jeanette's first husband and he is actually really funny in it and provides some pretty good comic relief. I should have known the movie would be good because the director / script writer is Destin Daniel Cretton who did Short Term 12 (2013). This movie is no where near as good as Short Term 12, but still, this director is always a good sign.

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