book review: Educated by Tara Westover

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EDUCATED by Tara Westover
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2018

 

Well, Tara Westover is certainly a remarkable woman with a remarkable story. It’s not difficult to see why Educated has been so well received, and if you’re interested in reading it I’d implore you to take my 3 stars with a grain of salt, as I mainly think I just wasn’t the right reader for this book.

Educated is Westover’s memoir of growing up in a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Though she was technically supposed to have been home-schooled, her lessons stopped when she was fairly young, and her sporadic self-teaching hardly was able to prepare her for setting foot in a classroom for the first time when she was accepted to BYU at 17. But we know from the blurb that she ends up getting a PhD from Cambridge, so from the beginning it’s clear that Westover’s memoir is in many ways going to be a success story. But it isn’t a smooth journey, owing to the ongoing abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father and older brother, well into adulthood.

The first half of this book chronicles Westover’s childhood, and to me this was undoubtedly the weaker half of the story. The anecdotes selected, though extreme and shocking and therefore compelling in a morbid way, I think rely a bit too heavily on their shock value to engage the reader. I felt this fell into that trap of too much recall/not enough analysis. Though Westover expertly evoked the setting of her childhood with details like her father’s rejection of hospitals and the sense of impending doom with which he navigated their survivalist life, the scene was set early on, and the sheer number of car crashes and burns and other accidents recounted actually served to bog down the narrative for me.

The second half, which details Westover’s experience with her education, improved the memoir in leaps and bounds. At this point in the story the self-reflection kicks into a higher gear, as Westover begins to reconcile her parents’ view of the world with her own experiences. This particular kind of resilience I guess resonated with me more than the kind of strength it took Westover to survive her childhood – I’m not diminishing that in any way, just to clarify, but I can’t deny that I found the second half of this memoir twice as stimulating as the first.

I’ve been browsing some of the negative reviews for this book, and noticing that there’s a common thread of not believing Westover’s account of things. And I admittedly get that. I would describe myself as a rather gullible person, but even I started questioning certain details in her story – more having to do with the smooth trajectory of her education than with her childhood abuse. I actually found the eccentric and violent survivalist family much more believable than the fact that someone who didn’t have a birth certificate for nearly a decade, who doesn’t even know her own birthday, was able to seamlessly enroll in college and obtain a passport. But despite my conflicting feelings about this, I think when you choose to read a memoir, you’re doing so with the knowledge that you only have the author’s truth. Occasionally you’ll hear stories about memoirs and nonfiction books being debunked, but for the most part, you’re never going to find out the objective truth behind the story you just read. So rather than torture myself over this, I’m choosing to believe Tara Westover, and believe that perseverance and passion is sometimes all it takes to turn your life around, difficult as the challenges may be. If you’re interested in that kind of story, Educated is definitely the memoir for you.

23 thoughts on “book review: Educated by Tara Westover

  1. Great review! I liked this book but didn’t quite get the glowing reviews, and I was also troubled by some details, it just seemed a very fast trajectory and I thought maybe there was more to the home schooling than depicted. Great to read your thoughts on this one, well said!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! And yes, that’s exactly it. I’m ordinarily not one to pick apart a memoir for details, because of course you’re just getting one inherently biased and very condensed view of events, so I’m sure there was more going on behind the scenes than Tara Westover showed us….. but when she told us about applying to college without a single mention of the Common App or the FAFSA I thought showing more details would have ultimately lent her memoir more credibility. Also I should probably research BYU specifically, but I was so confused when she mentioned that she’d never written an essay before college, because I was like wait, what college in America doesn’t have you write an essay as a part of your application?!

      Anyway, I’m very conflicted. But yes, the rave reviews are a bit odd to me as well, I enjoyed it well enough but it wasn’t the best memoir I’ve read even this month let alone this year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “the rave reviews are a bit odd to me as well, I enjoyed it well enough but it wasn’t the best memoir I’ve read even this month let alone this year.” <– My thoughts exactly!! I really didn't get the massive praise. It's mostly well written but geez. I didn't even notice that about the essay and the application, that's really odd…I was assuming she'd condensed some things but the leap she made in adapting to higher education was still too extreme for me to not wonder. I don't at all doubt that she earned her degrees, but especially considering that at least one of her brothers got a PhD too, I think there was more to their home schooling at the very least, maybe additional support at the college. But who knows. I wasn't even enthralled enough with the whole story to bother digging deeper into it. Another blogger with publishing background told me it was the subject of an immense publicity campaign and push, which may explain at least in part why it's gotten so much attention. The comparisons to the Glass Castle especially irk me because that book is in another league, in my opinion, and Jeannette Walls seemed to have written it from a more reflective place, and I think a more healed one. I was also troubled that Westover seems to still be somewhat caught in the abusive cycle with her family, I think I recall a line near the end of Educated about how she'd closed the door to them but could imagine opening it again, something like that. Anyway, I feel like I'm being judgemental of someone's experience and I don't mean to be, but really loved hearing and sharing thoughts with you on this one!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I feel the exact same way! The entire time I was reading I felt like I was bending over backward not to victim blame Tara, because I can’t even imagine how horrible the abuse was that she suffered, but at the same time I almost felt like she didn’t have enough distance and perspective to be writing this memoir at this time in her life? There were certain lines that gave me pause, that made me want to say ‘ok but do you realize how awful that is??’ Of course I sympathize with Tara and don’t expect her to reach clarity about this overnight, but I’m just wondering what the end result would have been if she’d held off on writing this for ten years. I hadn’t heard about the publicity campaign but that totally makes sense. This book is so marketable toward a liberal academic audience it’s not even funny.

        I really need to give The Glass Castle another try – I started it when I was about 14 and wasn’t too interested, but I don’t think that really counts as giving it a real chance. I’ve heard nothing but great things! And I loved hearing your thoughts on this as well!

        Liked by 1 person

      • haha we are so of the same mind about this whole thing. I had the same reaction, that there wasn’t enough distance and perspective to write this kind of story, and not because of the quality of the book overall but because it’s so uncomfortable to realize that she’s not quite in the place she needs to be yet. I didn’t even think of it being marketable for a liberal academic audience but as soon as you said it, it makes sense, of course that’s what it was intended for.

        I think the Glass Castle is worth a second try if it didn’t appeal to you the first time around. Jeanette Walls writes from a much different place and it gives her a different perspective on what she’s lived through and what it all means, it had such an impact and I didn’t have the kind of uncomfortable or questioning moments like with this one. She really took the time to tell the story right and it feels so different, it frustrated me to see Educated constantly touted as the next Glass Castle when they were worlds apart from how I saw it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, exactly! There was just that uncomfortable quality that permeated the entire memoir owing to the fact that Tara seemed too close to the events she was describing. And I’m not saying that everyone who enjoyed this book is like this, but I definitely think there’s an almost self-congratulatory element to reading about academia triumphing over survivalism that appeals to that particular demographic. It’s so easy to read this as a cut and dry success story and ignore the ongoing abuse that Tara continues to suffer… the whole thing just made me feel very odd.

        I hate when marketing comparisons end up being way off – I just experienced that with people complaining that The Water Cure isn’t the next Handmaid’s Tale like the blurb promised. But yes, I’ll definitely try The Glass Castle again! I don’t even remember why I stopped reading it, I think I was just too young to properly appreciate it.

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  2. Great review, I want to read this one myself after seeing all the amazing reviews, but I’m glad to see yours which takes the glowing down a touch. It gives me more realistic expectation of the book before going in, even if I do end up enjoying this more than you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard so many praises about this book, and it’s been quite a while since I read a memoir and I’ve always liked studying, so this seems like the book for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have been thinking about picking this one back up and that you enjoyed the second half more is really reassuring.

    (did I mention how much I love your new-found love of memoirs?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, do pick it back up so we can discuss! I would be so curious to hear your thoughts. How far did you get before?

      I don’t know why I used to have this idea that there was no point in reading a memoir if you aren’t already invested in the author? I’m glad I realized that was dumb.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I made it around 60ish pages in. Then her brother left and I just couldn’t. But I did enjoy the book so I will definitely pick it back up. I think the hype just got to me a bit.

        I started reading memoirs with memoirs written (and read) by famous women – and then branched out, so I do understand past you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think the hype got to me too, and I’m sure that nagging ‘what, that was it?’ feeling played into my final rating. It was not a bad book at all… just not an extraordinary book.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve seen quite a few lukewarm to negative reviews about this, but I think I’ll still end up picking it up just to see. It’s good to know I should keep my expectations down, though. Doing so usually helps me enjoy a book more!

    Liked by 1 person

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