I finished reading Educated over the weekend (a three-day reading binge that seriously slowed down my grading). I had read the excerpt published in Time and it ticked a few “I would really like that” boxes. A lot of the headlines about the book bill it as her “escape from a Mormon family;” I think a more true log-line would describe it as a difficult journey from a rural, survivalist family to a sense of self in the wider world.
It’s extraordinary — on multiple levels. The writing is clear and thoughtful; she balances action and reflection in a way that brings the reader with her in her emotional and educational transformation. There’s a thing that sometimes happens in memoirs — where there is a chasm between the reader and the speaker, a kind of interiority that does not translate. Educated bridges this chasm. Westover doesn’t overwhelm us with characters or metaphors or extended reflective monologues. She tells us a series of events from her childhood, braided with her growing awareness of self and world. Her stories are detailed, rich in setting and dialogue. (She says in this interview that this learned about narrative craft from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; I can see how she mirrors the arc of a short story in each chapter.)
So the writing is good. But more than the writing, I was impressed with Westover’s refusal to allow any of her characters (i.e., family members) to be either black or white. Love exists alongside violence and neglect; belief follows sentences of profound doubt. Betrayal is recounted without blame or resentment. Religion is not demonized. It’s not comforting or easy, as several of the “fundamentalist-family-abuse-trap” stories I’ve read have been. Westover holds us in the ambiguity of being human in a difficult world. At its core, it is asking questions about how we define ourselves, about how we heal ourselves, about what we owe to our families.
And Educated is also one of the first memoirs I’ve read without a false sense of ending. There was no neat tying up, and yet at the end, the story felt finished.
All this to say — it’s a book well-worth picking up.