My book club is made up of a lot of non-fiction readers, so I’ve been reading more nonfiction than I normally do. Some books have been good, some not-so-great, but I’ve decided that memoir is overall not my genre. The Glass Castle, while one of the most startling nonfiction accounts I’ve ever read, was a tough book to read for lots of reasons.
First, the story: Jeannette Walls grows up in an unconventional family. Her father is a megalomaniac and an alcoholic. Her mother is an “artist” with talent but no real work ethic or parenting skills. Together the Walls parents and their children move around from desert town to desert town, hoping to make it big or just escape the authorities. There is a jaunt to Phoenix, then a move to West Virginia. Finally, a middle-school Jeannette begins to think of a way to get out and make something of herself, or sink into the trash heap in their ramshackle house.
Initially, I hated this book. Not because the parents are crazy. I mean, yes, the parents are crazy and despicable and you should utterly loathe the way they treat their children. But the style was so overdone. I felt like I was drowning in an MFA project at first. I will say, though, that later Walls backs off the fancy prose and just gets to the story.
And then there’s the whole aspect of getting to New York and getting out of her family’s clutches that sort of got brushed over. I realize that Walls worked hard and was determined to get out. But, as with my reading of Good People, sometimes we still apply the “bootstraps” philosophy, when sometimes, sheer luck and circumstance is a help. I feel that while the older kids were hardworking, they were also fortunate to have the right people in their lives, whereas the youngest sister Maureen did not have someone to guide her or help her find that vision within herself. Her outcome was far more likely to happen, and I really wish that Walls would have addressed that somehow.
And on a personal note, I just don’t care for family drama stories. As a composition teacher, I assign a personal narrative essay each year. I read a LOT of essays on mission trips, on cancer, on death, eating disorders, suicide, all sorts of wrenching family dysfunction. I’m sort of numbed to the spectacle of it all, so for me, The Glass Castle was not remotely pleasurable or shocking. It was like going to work and reading yet another cathartic but emotionally exhausting student essay. I’ve decided this is a big reason why I just.don’t.do.memoir.
In the end, I didn’t hate the book. But it wasn’t amazing for me, as it was for The Chancellor. I think I am going to be the lone holdout this weekend at Book Club, just like I was with the last memoir we read.