Getting Brave Enough to Tackle Jeanette Winterson

I’d forgotten how funny she is.

My last glimpse of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, back when I was choosing the opening line-up for the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Book Club, was of the British five-hour television mini-series of the Jeanette Winterson novel – not all five hours, that’s for sure. I barely made it through the first twenty minutes. What was witty and almost surreal about growing up evangelical is filmed in horror-movie realism, bleak and grim. Reading about a mother brutally instructing her daughter in the Bible is one thing, especially when the writing style is delightfully quirky. Seeing it acted out physically bordered on visual abuse. What should have been filmed by Terry Gilliam was filmed by someone who wants to be Mike Leigh. It’s thoroughly unpleasant, where the novel is hilariously droll.

  I’d forgotten how enjoyable the novel’s narrative was, how punchy the humor.

Then I started hitting the Bible book chapter-names and the fairy tales.

It doesn’t take too much Biblical scholarship to figure out that Genesis is the name of the first chapter for obvious reasons. Exodus, the name of the second chapter, deals with Jeanette being legally ordered to attend public school and her first venturing into the Breeding Ground. The first two chapters are easy. Proceeding logically, Leviticus, the third chapter, should have to do with laws – but does the chapter live up to that? No. Then the chapter-names get even tougher and more puzzling – Numbers, and Judges, and the dreaded Deuteronomy – and I can’t tell you what those have to do with anything.

  As for those fairy tales that keep interrupting the story, I would have begged Winterson to leave them out. What in the world is the point of them? All they do is stop the story. You try to figure out if they have anything to do with anything, and you wait them out, and you’re none the wiser.

Well, no use being irritated. I can keep kicking myself around the block for choosing the book before I’d finished reading it, or I can deal with it. I’ve never gone into a book discussion more annoyed with a book, but that might give me a healthy perspective. I certainly admire her writing gifts. However I haven’t even reached those last troublesome chapters, which I remember as being the most pretentious.

  Luckily, I’ve asked Amy, my favorite of the women facilitators in the support groups at Dunshee House, to “co-facilitate” the second of the four Oranges meetings. So maybe I’ll get a fresh approach to the novel from her. And then Brad Craft, our literary historian, is a big fan of hers, and will certainly admire what I find merely frustrating. And then, above and beyond everything else, there’s the very point of all book clubs which will work in my favor – among all those healthy, thoughtful minds in our club, coming together in conversation, I’ll bet someone is going to help me understand that novel better.

I look forward to our discussion tomorrow night. And now I’d better get back to re-reading and underlining and figuring out some provocative questions to get at the heart of this exasperating book.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "Getting Brave Enough to Tackle Jeanette Winterson"

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  1. greccostoliessimile@yahoo.com' Gene GreccoStoliesSimile' says:

    Jeanette Winterson’s novel succeded in engaging and disengaged me repeatedly because she was not consistent with her style’s layout of thought. What I mean there were two many styles used to present her story, such as in the Chapter title Genesis where she used numbered line items; a tool of her structured message that she never again used in other chapeter; a tool I rather liked and missed in the rest of her story.

    Deuterononmy, the las book of the law, well, there is more there than I have been able to entirely take in because I called this chapter, for my self, the Truth of History or vice versa.
    Three pages of resounding perspective ask me to ask of the larger world, how much of this perspective is entirely accurate and faithful as conclusions of reason and interpretation. If I could only persuade my mother, a reasonably devote Mormon, to read this chapter, maybe her capacity to take other things into account for broader perspectives in all matters would grow.

    I identify with the mobbing moments that repeatedly emerge in the fabic of the story with all their chilling implications. This is a story, to me, about the pyschological brutality religion cultures, particularly christian ones.

    I have enjoyed the journey of the book. It is a clever piece of work.
    Gene
    Seattle Gay and Lesbian Book Club member.

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