The Glass Castle and A Separation

It’s good to be home after a great trip and summer vacation back East. We spent a week cottaging (my new verb) on an island along the St. Lawrence River near the Thousand Islands. See the view from the photo at left. It’s a beautiful area and river — where my husband grew up — that borders Canada and the U.S. and we visited both sides. Has anyone been to Gananoque, Ontario, or Clayton, N.Y., or Cape Vincent, N.Y.? Lovely little towns. We enjoyed bicycling the island, kayaking around, sunning and swimming (mostly my husband braved the waters while I read my book and enjoyed the views). It was a neat place to explore and we will think about it again maybe for next year.

We had a fair share of sun and rain there with a few big thunderstorms that crashed down rattling the small cottage. With all the water and humidity, it felt like a jungle out there covered with lush vegetation and trees — quite a change from out West where it’s very dry and scorched at the moment. We returned home to Western Canada to a heat wave where things are brown, and fires are raging in B.C. (Down south my father said it was 112 where they live in California, yikes!). Thankfully we are getting a thunderstorm today and a reprieve from the heat. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a couple of reviews of novels I finished on the trip.

I’m not sure why I never read Jeannette Walls’s memoir “The Glass Castle” when it came out in 2005. It was on the New York Times Best Seller List for more than five years. I think by then I might have been a bit wary or just plain scared of down-and-out memoirs about really tough childhoods. I had read Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir “The Liar’s Club” and Dorothy Allison’s 1992 semi-autobiographical novel “Bastard Out of Carolina,” both of which were pretty disturbing. There was also Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir “This Boy’s Life” and Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir “The Kiss,” both of which I knew were pretty rough and I held off on reading. I was sort of in a recovery pause from those kinds of memoirs, but then I heard “The Glass Castle” was coming out as a movie in August, and I thought it was about time I read it and I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact it surprised me just how powerful it was. I completely fell into Jeannette Walls’s story on Page 1 and it kept me in its grips till the very end. For those unfamiliar with it, the memoir recounts the poverty-stricken upbringing Walls and her siblings faced at the hands of her dysfunctional parents. When she was young, the family moved around the West among small mining towns where her father hoped to find gold and strike it rich. They often lived in dirty shacks and didn’t have enough to eat or clothes to wear. Eventually they inherited a place to live in Phoenix when Jeannette’s grandmother died, but after some years they ran out of money and moved once again — this time to Jeannette’s paternal grandparents’ town in Welch, West Virginia.

It’s in Welch that things become even more dicey for Jeannette and her siblings. Her alcoholic father spends their money at the bars and her mother puts her energies into doing artwork, rather than her off-and-on teaching jobs. All the while the family resides in a small rotting house with no indoor plumbing and a roof that leaks on them. Her father promises that he’ll someday build his dream house, a glass castle on the property, which like all of his dreams never comes to fruition. Still Jeannette and her siblings persevere, leaving in their late teens for New York City, where they somehow make it, pursuing higher education and careers.

It’s quite a story, made all the more crazy since their parents wind up following them to New York, eventually living in an abandoned building as squatters. Jeannette recounts one evening while in a taxi seeing her mother picking through a dumpster for food. Jeannette and her siblings had helped her parents to get off the streets on various occasions, eventually to no avail. It’s this secret about Jeannette’s life that eventually propels her to confront her shame and open up about her impoverished childhood.

It’s a story that left me at times feeling quite exasperated and angered by her parents, who are truly neglectful of raising their kids and at times feeding them. I wanted to shake some sense into them along the way, yet surprisingly the kids make their way nonetheless and the family keeps together. The emotional bonds remain despite all the hardships, which I found surprising. It’s not a ranting memoir by an embittered daughter but rather a coming clean story about one’s past, in which the author remains in the end close to her parents.

As rough as it gets, the story luckily is not filled with a lot of physical abuse like some memoirs are about rough childhoods. I was thankful for that, and I thought Jeannette’s writing was superb — candid and evocative — and not overly wrought. Just telling it like it was. If you haven’t read it and get a chance, don’t pass the book up; there’s things to be learned from the memoir that I hope not to forget.

But judging by the movie’s trailer, there’s a chance the movie will not live up to the book for me. They make it seem sort of whimsical, as if the parents were just some unconventional, optimistic dreamers who wanted to challenge their gifted kids and have them learn the ropes a different way. While some of that may be true, from what I read in the book their grim poverty was real and the parents’ neglect of responsibilities seemed abusive; it’s a serious issue in many homes. I hope the movie treats it as such, though I agree the parents’ characters were more nuanced than being just plain bad or good; they were a mix, which makes it all the more emotionally complex. Still I hope the filmmakers have been careful to match it to what happened in the book.

Also last week I finished the audiobook of Katie Kitamura’s novel “A Separation,” which came out in February. For some reason — maybe because of the book’s marketing — the story was not what I expected but I liked it perhaps even more for that. It is actually much different than a “Gone Girl” type of thriller. Good grief, it’s an injustice to lump it together into that genre — for both fans of that genre and others who avoided it for trying to be another “Gone Girl.” For the record, “A Separation” is a slow-burn of a novel that’s much more ponderous about its themes.

It’s about a woman — a wife in London, whose mother-in-law sends her to Greece to find her son (the woman’s husband) because she hasn’t been able to get in contact with him and is worried. The husband, who’s on work travels in Greece, and the wife have been married for five years, yet separated six months ago without telling friends and relatives, maybe with a chance that they’d work it out. But when the wife gets to his hotel in Greece, she finds he’s not there but is known by the staff and is thought to be out doing research in the area, which has been charred earlier that summer by wildfires.

You get an ominous picture as the woman narrates the story of her travels to the hotel, her meetings with the staff there, her talks with her husband’s parents, and her searches for her husband. There’s not a large amount of action or dialogue in the story but it’s more consumed by the woman’s narration of her internal thoughts, feelings, and suspicions regarding her marriage, her husband’s infidelities, which you learn about, and love and divorce.

Wow this woman rattles on and on about it all. It’s quite a sad and tension-filled narration, sometimes I wanted her to stop and the story to just get on with where it was going, but most times I found her thoughts revealing and I couldn’t turn away as small details about the marriage unfold as well as those about her husband and what happened to him. It’s an internal kind of story no doubt, and in that way it might not appeal to everyone. Some might lose patience midway through and feel like chucking the novel against a wall, but I was kept intrigued and wondered admiringly who the author was and why I hadn’t know of her earlier. I found “A Separation” to be a bit unusual and a potent small gem. I will watch for whatever Katie Kitamura puts out next. Apparently she’s married to British novelist Hari Kunzru, for those who know his work.

What about you — have you read “A Separation” or “The Glass Castle,” and if so, what did you think?

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20 Responses to The Glass Castle and A Separation

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    It looks like you had a great trip. I have visited the Gananoque and Clayton areas a very long time ago. It is a nice place to vacation.

    The Glass Castle sounds difficult to read but very good. I think that it would be very unfortunate if the film portrayed the parents as some kind of idealistic dreamers. I find that there is a tendency in some quarters to romanticize neglectful and harmful people. This tendency is very off putting to me.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Wow Brian, neat to hear that you’ve been to Gananoque and Clayton areas. They are fun & scenic to visit and we found lots to do. I agree with you about the parents in The Glass Castle. When I watched the trailer of the film, I felt a little like ‘oh no, what’s this’ but I should wait to see. I hope it doesn’t romanticize it either.

  2. Your trip sounds wonderful to me.

    I loved The Glass Castle and, at first, I was angry at her parents but then I came to realize they were mentally ill and probably doing the best they could.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Kathy, it was a great trip. It did cross my mind too that the parents in The Glass Castle were mentally ill, particularly the mother — she seemed so. The dad seemed like an addict. I was amazed & glad the kids persevered — it’s a story of courage by them, & of not giving up.

  3. Carmen says:

    You seem to have enjoyed your vacation back east. The place looks picturesque. Both books sound great, especially The Glass Castle with such a powerful story.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, yes the trip was fun; the East is a nice change & opposite to where we live; love going. & You’re right — the Glass Castle is quite powerful! It sort of blew me away and surprised me at times. A great memoir.

  4. Your photos look like they could have been taken in my backyard! We’ve been to both Clayton and Cape Vincent… lovely little towns, indeed. I’m glad the storms didn’t have too much of an impact on you. There was quite a bit of flooding in our area, also downed trees and power lines. We lost power for 7 hours. and they’re still cleaning up trees and repairing flood damage.

    I read The Glass Castle with my book club years ago (must have been in 2005 because I bought the hardcover edition) and couldn’t get past my anger at the parents. Doubt I will see the movie. A Separation sounds good though.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn, so sorry to hear about your flooding, ugh that’s rough. Some of those storms were huge! I thought the cottage roof was going to cave. We did make it to the boat museum in Clayton. It was lovely to visit & we ate lunch by the river. I hear you about The Glass Castle; I wanted to throttle the parents. It’s hard to understand — they seemed either nuts &/or selfish. But I had to hand it to Jeannette & her siblings for rising above & getting out. Both books sort of surprised me.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I read The Glass Castle back when it was the hottest thing around. I too was pulled into the story. She is a fabulous writer. I think I read another book by her, a novel based on her grandmother, though I don’t seem to have a record of it. It was not as dark but equally good. I wonder about the movie. Of course, I will see it eventually.
    Thanks for your review of A Separation. Because of the Gone Girl comparison, I wasn’t going to read it, but now I will.
    Finally went back down into the 90s here. Big deal. Going to be a hot summer. We have fires too.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Judy. I agree: Jeannette Walls is a fabulous writer. I was surprised by the power of the whole thing. I think you might like A Separation — lots of inner thoughts to it. Hope the fires will go out and won’t be too near you. It’s always quite alarming.

  6. Viv says:

    I loved reading the Glass Castle, she is such a great storyteller. I can still imagine her falling out of the car and see little rocks imbedded in her tender cheeks. What a crazy life and family!!! Glad you enjoyed your holiday cottaging!! Did you bring Stella? Were the 150 yr fireworks impressive there? Take care Susan Viv

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Vivien! We had a fun time but we didn’t bring Stella — I was too afraid to fly her. We missed the fireworks in Kingston as it was a bit of a crowded zoo — we were there for dinner but then went back to the island. Cottaging was great! Glad to hear you liked The Glass Castle too. Wow it was nuts! Hope your summer is good. take care.

  7. ‘Cottaging’ is such a cute verb. Thank you for coining it. 🙂 And I so love all your pictures.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deepika, thanks for stopping by. Cottaging is big in Canada — I’m just trying to be like the locals, LOL. Hope you are well. 🙂

  8. John Wright says:

    Sounds like a great trip–bet Stella’s up for some cottaging!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks John, yeah it was a great trip. Wish we could’ve taken Stella with us. I’m still quite chicken to fly her in cargo on an airline. She’s never flown yet.

  9. JaneGS says:

    Your vacation sounds wonderful–I’m a big fan of little towns with lots of outdoor recreating possibilities. It’s hard to come home to the intense heat–hope it cools off soon.

    I like memoirs but it would take really powerful writing for me to get into the type of down-and-out story in The Glass Castle.

    I like the premise of A Separation, but it sounds ponderous.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Jane, you’re correct : A Separation is quite ponderous. I thought The Glass Castle had quite a bit of powerful writing to it — which surprised me. It is worth it. I will be stopping by your site soon to see how your trip to Hadrian’s Wall went. Cheers!

  10. Naomi says:

    I know I’m a bit late to this post, it sounds like you had a nice trip to Ontario. They definitely did get a lot of rain in late spring/early summer.
    I loved The Glass Castle when I read it years ago. I hope the movie does it justice!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Naomi — just saw your comment thanks. Yeah the water was very high on the St. Lawrence River; it had flooded many properties. But we had a good time in Ontario! The Glass Castle was an excellent book; not sure if I’ll see the movie at a theater. I’ll likely wait till it’s on rental.

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