There are some lovely flashes... She builds tension so that you will her on to escape from the prison of her family and offers sharp observation... Westover’s journey from a remote corner of the American west to one of the world’s grandest seats of learning is extraordinary, but her educational triumph comes at the terrible cost of relations with her family... Westover, now 31, gives us such a fresh, absorbing take that it deserves to bring her own private Idaho into the bestseller lists, book groups and, eventually, cinemas.
Growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family, Tara Westover was entirely self-taught and cut off from the modern world, but eventually studies at Harvard and Cambridge. Unflinching and fascinating, Educated was one of 2018's standout memoirs.
Brought up in a chaotic family dominated by the survivalist beliefs of her bipolar Mormon father Gene, Tara Westover had no immunisations, no formal education and didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17. This beautifully written look at her struggles to find her place in the world, via a PhD from Cambridge University, is both humbling and inspirational and deserves to sit alongside other classic coming-of-age memoirs by Jeanette Winterson and Lorna Sage.
Westover eventually makes it to Harvard for another fellowship and then back to Cambridge to pursue her Ph.D. in history. Even then, she’s not yet fully sprung, so deeply rooted are the tangled familial claims of loyalty, guilt, shame and, yes, love. It is only when the final, wrenching break from most of her family arrives that one realizes just how courageous this testimonial really is. These disclosures will take a toll. But one is also left convinced that the costs are worth it. By the end, Westover has somehow managed not only to capture her unsurpassably exceptional upbringing, but to make her current situation seem not so exceptional at all, and resonant for many others. She is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn’t going back.
Westover’s story is so extraordinary that its bare bones would have been enough to make a fascinating book, so the fact that she tells it with such enormous skill and insight feels like a bonus. The narrative is perfectly paced, revealing more and more details as Westover gradually begins to see her family, whose beliefs and lifestyle she has always taken for granted, in relief for the first time... Educated reminds us that education doesn’t just mean learning about history and science and art. It means learning how to think for oneself... She knows that her education has brought pain as well as fulfilment. But that education has given her ability to define her life and tell her own unforgettable story, and for that readers everywhere should be grateful.
Westover’s narrative style – episodic, meditative and repetitive – doesn’t embrace melodrama to the extent that many of those books did. Her voice is slightly flimsy, scaffolding with sheets of plastic floating off, as if still in the process of building itself. Other than as a sort of articulate vortex of suffering, one hasn’t much of a sense of her. Educated relies on the conceit that Westover was saved by books, but at the end I had a sense of our narrator still hiding behind her degrees and certificates, not quite ready to step into the light. I kept thinking of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, a memoir of her hardscrabble Texas upbringing, and how Karr’s voice was one you couldn’t ignore.