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‘The Glass Castle’ book review

(Official Facebook page of The Glass Castle)

There’s something about reading a book aloud that makes it ever the more memorable, and Jeannette Walls’ painfully lyrical memoir, “The Glass Castle,” reiterates this feeling further.

With every dog-eared page and re-recited passage, I came to understand each individual character within Walls’ narrative more completely. Every childhood skirmish the characters faced while living in desolation in the coal-dusted town of Welch, West Virginia, within an unfurnished house with a slanted porch, came to signify more than a time of financial misfortune.

These clashes symbolized the relationship between the self-centered mother, Rose Mary, and her convoluted sense of parental responsibilities, their father Rex’s unrelenting drinking habits at the expense of his family and four children’s unmatched desire to persist and attain a life of eventual normalcy.

As the narrative progresses, an easy dynamic to be cognizant of was the love — despite its unconventional nature — between Walls and the rest of her family.

Walls goes to great lengths to demonstrate the permanence of family in her mind. She describes with immense detail the sense of comradery that developed as a result of otherwise unfortunate circumstances, like taking a tumble out of a moving vehicle onto the sunbaked tar of an unfamiliar highway. Banged up, alone and perpetually hungry, Walls spent much of her childhood and early teen years facing similar adversity.

Despite the fact that this memory belonged to Walls in the reflection of its singular experience, all of her siblings endured comparable misfortunes as a result of their parents’ ineptitude. Thus, they grew stronger internally, both in their senses of self, and into the arms of one another. They became a little tribe, fighting their battles alongside each other, always careful to protect the weakest link.

Yet, through intense parallelism, their unique characteristics were never lost on the reader. Walls was the second oldest, existing as the narrator of the tale. She was intensely resilient without losing her capability to be relatable. Lori was the big sister with an inclination for art and puffy paint. She held the original dream to move to New York City that lit the lives of her younger siblings once they jumped on board.

Brian was the only boy, the second youngest. His antics and genuine sense of love and support for his older sisters radiated throughout the culminating days before they left for the city. He slept underneath an inflatable air mattress for the better part of 10 years in order to avoid the rain falling through the cracks of their splintered bedroom ceiling. This same love and compassion later made him an excellent detective and father.

Maureen was the pretty one, the youngest sibling. She had lots of friends and was able to escape much of the household calamities through the kindness of neighbors. Yet, it wasn’t enough to keep her out of harm’s way as her own lack of resiliency and self-awareness paved the way for substance abuse later on in life.

Walls wore her heart on her sleeve for the entirety of the memoir in her efforts to both shine light on the inadequacies of her parents as role models and productive members of society, but also as loving and compassionate individuals with misguided motives. She seems to acknowledge the intersectionalities of both their personas, without attaining any sense of drudgery or prolonged bitterness.

By taking immense care in this process, Walls created a story that proves the intricacy of the relationship between life, love and parenthood — things that, if not cared for properly, exist at the expense of one another.

Of all the impressive rhetorical elements in “The Glass Castle,” the most tenacious was its ability to connect me with my own childhood misfortunes. Coming from a home that is best described as shattered but not broken, Walls’ ability to actively detail the deep-rooted disappointment, pain and general feelings of crushing isolation, came as a solace.

In her practice of transforming a tragic story into something beautiful, it was impossible not to come to terms with the reality that no one’s life is perfect — and some lives are far worse yet. Sometimes the grass is greener on neither side.

If praise can be expressed for the totality of Walls’ novel, it deserves to be sprinkled heavily on the decadence that exists in her concluding pages; they scooped up the entirety of a complicated childhood, a temporarily misguided yet successful adulthood and a final acceptance of the influence of her troubled parents — an influence that she later realizes gave her artistic appreciation and resilience, scars and trauma, happy memories and suppressed subconscious ones.

The most memorable aspect of this work was that Walls achieves all of this without inheriting any of the troubled-childhood, coming-of-age stereotypes that are often peddled in the arena of memoirs.

Overall, this was the most original, heartfelt, self-aware rendition I’ve seen yet, and I treasure the idea of reading more of Walls’ work.

Gina Lopez can be reached at gmlopez@umass.edu.

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