Saturday, December 7, 2019

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

If you haven't yet heard about this book, you're probably living under a rock. It's been all over the book world, Westover's been on morning programs, it's in every store that carries even one book, whether it's a bookstore of not, and it certainly has turned up in every book club ever. Now, if you know me at all, you know this means that this tornado of publicity and buzz would mean that I'd wait years to read it. But look again at the last place in the list you'd have found it since it was released. Yes, it turned up in my book club too and so I went out and picked up a copy. But unlike so many others, I didn't adore this book. It is hard and astonishing but I have reservations.

Tara Westover was born into a survivalist, atypical Mormon family, one of seven children. Her parents eschewed medical care and didn't even get birth certificates for their younger children. Westover's father worried about what all the government could track about them if they were registered in any way and about the way in which the outside world was connected to Satan. The children grew up doing dangerous work in the family junkyard and not only not attending school, but not being schooled at home either.  Their upbringing was an interesting mix of strict and feral.  But Westover, the youngest child, was curious and rebellious and curiosity and rebellion will find a way. She details some pretty horrific instances from her childhood: injury, abuse, gaslighting. And she presents the reader with her agonizing over getting out of her family situation and the sorrow she feels at being estranged from this darkly, dysfunctional family. That she made it out after teaching herself enough to take the ACT successfully, to go to college, and to earn a doctorate at one of the most celebrated universities in the world after her upbringing is certainly impressive. Her story is, simply put, remarkable.

And if that's all it needs to be, then it deserves all the praise it gets. But there's more to it than just the story (and even that has some things that I question) and that's where it lost me a little. I do not doubt that Westover was abused and manipulated and that her father probably has a mental illness and her mother goes along to get along but there are some things that stretch credulity, chief among them the medical issues. The number of serious life-threatening injuries in the family that turn out to be healed without long term repercussions and often just with herbal ointments boggle the mind. Several she mentions (severe burns, cuts down to the very bone, etc.) would qualify as truly miraculous if they occurred to such a degree and healed without advanced medical intervention. Perhaps this can be written off as them being misremembered from her childhood or exaggerated for effect but it calls into question more of her recollections. She is honest in that many of her siblings' recollections differ from hers and she footnotes these differences as acknowledgement.  And yes, different people remember things differently, but it does make the reader wonder why her account should be taken as the complete and true version. And while I do believe that she has at least captured the spirit of her upbringing, there's also the story of her becoming "educated." Where was it? Yes, she puts in bits and pieces of her road to college but despite this initial jump into academia after an entire youth without school being a huge part of what makes her story remarkable, she glosses over much of her journey and barely acknowledges the massive role others outside of her family played in helping her achieve her much more connected to the world, much more "normal" life.  She has escaped from an oppressive, scary, and abusive family situation physically but there's little evidence here that she has escaped emotionally. And maybe she hasn't. Maybe she never will. But this might have had a stronger ending had she waited longer to write it, to come to an emotional maturity, to a healing that isn't yet in evidence, at least not in these pages. Finally, and it feels a little mean to say this because this was/is her life, but I found the story tedious to read. The beginning portion, when she was living at home is far more polished writing than the end, as if she has been working her early life and material over for a long time, shaping and crafting it carefully while the ending material felt less certain, less reflected upon. It's not a bad book; it's even ultimately a good book. But it's not the best book ever and not even the best book I've read this year. Given the near universal praise the book has received, it is clear that I am in a minority though.

1 comment:

  1. I would have to agree and you are the first person that had similar feelings about this book. I am in good company.


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