American Studies Week 9 Blog: Glass Castle
Find and analyze an online review of The Glass Castle.
Francine Prose’s review of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, although published in the prestigious New York Times, unfortunately consists of little more than an introduction to the book and so fails to offer any real critical insight into its nature or quality. But given that the review was written in 2005, just after the work was published, this perhaps is not much of a surprise, as it is clear that Prose’s most important purpose was to encourage readers to buy it. A brief summary of the review will provide evidence to support this judgment and then to allow for a critique of it using the benefit of hindsight.
Prose’s review can be broken down into two main components: 1) Praise for Jeannette Walls, and 2) A sustained attempt at highlighting the inability of Walls’s parents to take care of their children. Beginning her review by claiming that memoirs are our “modern fairy tales”, Prose immediately begins to praise Walls, asserting that the title of her novel is fitting, given that it evokes “the architecture of fantasy and magic”. She continues in this vein by stating that it is admirable that Walls refused “to indulge in amateur psychoanalysis” of her parents, and that her work is even comparable to Harry Crews’ memoir, “A Childhood”. However, she saves her greatest praise for last, claiming that Walls has “succeeded in doing what most writers set out to do – to write the kind of book they themselves most want to read”, and that despite it falling “short of being art, it is nonetheless “a very good memoir”.
In her attempt to depict the inability of Walls’s parents to come to terms with the demands of raising their children, Prose begins by providing a brief characterisation of both Jeannette’s parents, Rex Walls and Rose Mary Walls, before noting multiple examples of their attitude of neglect recounted in the memoir. However, it is perhaps her statement that “The Glass Castle” which gives the work its title is but a “carefree façade with which two people who were unsuited to raise children camouflaged their struggle to survive in a world for which they were likewise ill equipped,” that best encapsulates her message. Interestingly, though, Prose also praises the parents for home-schooling their children and is critical of the education system, stating that “it suggests something about our education system” that the children turned out to “academically ahead of local kids” on the occasions in which they did attend schools.
The chief problem with Prose’s review is that its focus is too narrow, meaning that she does not pick up on the issues of poverty, alcoholism and mental health that play a huge role in shaping the childhood experiences of Walls. Thus, whilst highlighting the horrific experiences of Walls’ childhood, she fails to alert the reader to the obvious correlation between social issues and dysfunctional families. In fact, what she appears to do is to portray the Walls family as a unique and isolated case of a dysfunctional family, whose problems were entirely the result of the individual deficiencies of her parents that made them unsuitable to be parents. This leads to her inadvertently diverting the attention of potential readers to what Walls truly wanted to highlight, as well as suggesting that dysfunctional families were not common in that period. However, this was not the case, as Walls clearly depicts the poor conditions of the areas in which her family resided, and of the several dysfunctional families who suffered from similar problems to her family by living in such conditions. In Prose’s defence, however, it should be noted that she does manage to comment on issues such as rape and the vulnerability of children, but again she only touches on them briefly, although it should be noted that they also do not receive extended treatment by Walls.
To conclude, it can be said that Prose’s review is a good starting point if one wants to encourage someone to devote time to reading this memoir. As a book review, though, it should be said that it is not of the highest quality, with it only partially discussing the issues central to the novel. However, what is perhaps most serious is that despite appearing to offer a synopsis of the book, Prose fails to mention two of its main characters, Walls’s younger brother and sister, who played a huge role in the author’s early life. Omitting their side of the story, which is very affecting, means that readers of the review are not aware of some of the most powerful material contained in this memoir.