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Seven years ago, Jeannette Walls published "The Glass Castle," a memoir. A few years later, she took a step towards fiction with what she called a true life novel. And this week, Walls' first full-fledged work of fiction is out. It's called "The Silver Star" and reviewer Meg Wolitzer says it is disappointing.

MEG WOLITZER: There's this certain kind of CPR that writers perform. They're supposed to breathe life into their characters. It's what Jeannette Walls did when she wrote "The Glass Castle," and at the end of it, I felt like I knew her. There are echoes of that book here. It begins with an unstable, narcissistic mother. Charlotte Holladay flits in and out of her daughters' lives. She's trying to make it as a singer but her talent seems as imaginary as her made-up boyfriend.

But just when the book seems like a compelling story about this whacked-out mom and her daughters, Charlotte abandons her family to pursue her music. The girls, in what seems to me to be a too-resourceful move, hop a bus cross-country to live in Virginia with relatives they don't know and the story goes off in a different, shakier direction.

"The Silver Star" is narrated by a brave little girl with an earnest voice. But Bean Holladay and her older sister Liz are adrift, not only in their own lives but in the story. In her new town, everybody speaks in folksy soundbites. At one point a long lost aunt says to Bean, you don't know too much about your daddy, do you, sugar? You got his spark, I do believe. This kind of dialogue doesn't let us in on anything weird or special about these people. It's like they all have one generic, homespun voice.

There's a plot involving an attack on Liz by the leering mill foreman, a court case, and some scattered observations about racism and mental illness, but much of it feels kind of simplistic.

I was so on board to read this book, so on board to love it. Like someone rooting for their horse in a horse race, I thought, come on, Jeannette Walls. Come on, do that thing I know you can do.

I understand why she'd want to switch to fiction. Sometimes a writer stays too long in the land of memoir. They put all the good stuff in the first book and by the time the next one comes out, it's basically all outtakes and small, unsatisfying potatoes. But the truth is, novels need to be held to the same standard as memoirs. They need to pulse and quiver with life. And all their characters need to be just as realized and just as real.

CORNISH: "The Silver Star" is by Jeannette Walls. Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel is called "The Interestings."



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