Coming Back to Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Book Group BuzzI read Jeanette Winterson’s debut autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit years ago, so I was intrigued to see what her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, would be like in revisiting some of the same material. I am preparing to lead a discussion on this book next week for a colleague’s book group and probably wouldn’t have picked up this book now had it not been imperative. You see, I didn’t love Oranges. I thought Written on the Body, another novel by Winterson, was amazing, but then read Art & Lies and lost interest again. Sometimes our interest in a writer and their work can ebb and flow from book to book. And sometimes it takes a nudge to come back to an author again.

But when I started Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I found that I had to read it slowly, marking passages and pages as I went along. The writing was clear, the emotions and the scenes of the past synthesized with the depth and perspective that you find in the best memoirs. Winterson returns to her rural Northern England upbringing with Mrs. Winterson, the odd, insular woman who adopted her and raised her with an all-encompassing zeal that rarely showed any glimpses of love. Here is an early passage of the break Winterson needed to make with her difficult mother:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers. It was my survival from the very beginning. Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.

Winterson’s mother believed that the written word was a danger, and so books and libraries became a refuge for her. Winterson’s mother was obsessed with sin and with God’s wrath. Her religious zeal found itself actualized when Winterson was discovered to be a lesbian—her mother called for a church intervention and the scene described is a craven and cruel parade of morality.

Winterson explores her humble, blue-collar roots in Accrington, her desire to attend college despite the odds stacked against women like herself, and the way she carved a life apart from the isolated life, which was the only one her mother had to offer or could envision for her adopted daughter. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a fitting title for this nuanced, thoughtful memoir, and Winterson displays her proud break from the past by finding more happiness and normalcy than her mother ever managed. I can’t wait to discuss this book with the group.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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