Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit came out when Jeanette Winterson, adopted daughter to Pentecostal parents, was 25. This semi-autobiographical tale captures the life of a young girl growing up in Northern England, raised to be a missionary but before hitting puberty falls in love with a girl. This brings the wrath of God and Mother. The novel closes with the young woman, Oxford educated and life-tempered, visiting home to find her mother broadcasting Gospel radio to the “heathens.”
Why Be Happy opens with the sheer and utter disappointment Jeanette’s mother rained down on her when the Oranges was published.
“She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself.  The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.
But that day she was borne up on the shoulders of her own outrage. She said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.’
I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. I am an ambitious writer- I don’t see the point of being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it.. Why should a women be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
Mrs. Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work.  Books had been forbidden in our house… and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize… She tells me that my success is from the Devil, keeper of the wrong crib. She confronts me with the fact that I have used my own name in the novel – if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?”
In 2006, two of my friends handed me books to read, their favorite book at the time. Bek gave me Written on the Body and Sian gave me The Passion.  Both novels were by the same author; Jeanette Winterson.  I’d never heard of this woman or these titles and in the same month I’d collected two of her works. It was just the beginning. Not only would I fall in love with Winterson’s words and her beautiful style but I became addicted. I sought her out, found more of her fiction: Sexing the Cherry, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.  The last being the book Winterson’s mother was so ashamed of.

Unlike The Passion or Sexing the Cherry, Oranges didn’t contain the whimsy of Winterson’s other works. It was her first novel, a fictionalized version of her early life, one that contained elements she wished her actual childhood had possessed. Friends, for one.  It was a version of her young life that she could live with. She saved the hard reality for Why Be Happy.

This is, hands down, the BEST BOOK I read this year, putting it in my top-five favorites along with Written on the Body, West With the Night, Geek Love, and The Count of Monte Cristo.  Interlacing perceptive descriptions, dialog and sharp memories, Winterson weaves a tale that proves beyond doubt that she can tell the truth as beautifully as she can fabricate fiction.

All summer this thin tome had a shelf talker (a concise review printed and hung directly below the book on our bookshelves) below it,but in a bout of misfortune characteristic for Winterson, the alphabetization of her name placed her and her memoir on the bottom shelf, far below eye-catching.  I’m pleased to be able to draw some necessary attention to this highly unnoticed work.

However, I attach this warning: Winterson is not for everyone. She works with words the way Monet mastered paint. Each sentence can be savored, read and reread, pondered and read again. Bookworks patrons come in and ask for the last book I read that I just couldn’t put down. I can hand them The Night Circus or City of Thieves, books I devoured in two sittings. Why Be Happy took me almost two weeks. Despite it’s compact size, it’s a heavy work. It needs to be processed and savored.

If I were one fraction of the writer Winterson is I could do a much better job of giving this book the review it deserves.  Instead, I can simply tell you to read it. Not only does Winterson win your respect and compassion, she solidifies her place among the contemporary greats.

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Oranges was made into a TV mini-series for the BBC in 1989.  This is part one…
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