Jeanette Winterson’s bold and revelatory novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most acclaimed books of the last three decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is considered one of the most important books in contemporary fiction. Jeanette’s adoptive mother loomed over her life until Jeanette finally moved out at sixteen because she was in love with a woman. As Jeanette left behind the strict confines of her youth, her mother asked, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
This memoir is the chronicle of a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser drawer; about growing up in a north England industrial town in the 1960s and 1970s; and about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can guide us when we are lost. Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging - for love, identity, and a home.
©2011 Jeanette Winterson (P)2012 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
"To read Jeanette Winterson is to love her. . . . The fierce, curious, brilliant British writer is winningly candid in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . . . [Winterson has] such a joy for life and love and language that she quickly becomes her very own one-woman bandone that, luckily for us, keeps playing on." (O, the Oprah Magazine)
"Moving, honest . . . Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved." (Kirkus Reviews)
"Raw . . . A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir." (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review)
I wanted to read this book from the moment I read a review in the New York Times. The title grabbed me by my inner truths and would not let me go, and I relate because my mother had the same philosophy, if she could even be said to have a "philosophy". It's the overall general sense of being "happy" vs being "normal" that got to me - not the specifics of Winterson's life. My mother, too, was big on being "normal" and also felt that being happy was an offshoot of arrogance - like "who are you to deserve happiness?" I am not attempting to define happiness here, just saying the idea was always presented as an unreachable ideal, only given to a privileged few, with the rest of us required to trudge along, suffering and miserable.
Anyway, the narration took some time getting used to - I initially found Ms. Winterson's voice to be a bit strident, with an accent I couldn't quite place, but I gradually acclimated and found a receptive space where I could listen with more peace. The accent and patterns of speech actually work to help create the ambience of mid-20th century Manchester, England.
I like that Winterson's description of the renaissance-like evolution and development of Manchester - from its dark days as Britain's foremost manufacturing town into a prosperous arcade of high-end consumer pleasures such as restaurants, art galleries, new housing created from vacated mill buildings - parallels her own journey of self-dicovery and reclamation.
The memoir proceeds chronologically, but sometimes it's not quite clear where we are in Winterson's life. Not a problem though, as things eventually do clear up, and the surface randomness of the story does not devolve into confusion for the reader; due to the beauty of the writing, sometimes it does not really matter. WInterson herself admits to not writing in a linear style, preferring a less structured way of selecting her scenes.
Although this is another story about growing up with a mother who is very odd in so many ways, unwilling and unable to show love, perhaps even to feel it, this narrative has its own animus, and I, as a reader, never tire of this subject nor of this genre. Winterson's rise from her very inauspicious and soul-destroying roots into triumph like the Phoenix from the ashes is a story that can be told again and again.
I believe a reviewer should finish a book before submitting a review. What do you think?
I'm not sure what drew me to this book, the other reviews I think.
Ms. Winterson tells us at some point (I loved that she was the narrator BTW) that she is writing in real time. As soon as I heard that, the flow of the book all made sense to me. Up until that point, more than half of the book, I was having trouble staying engaged. This makes prefect sense because Jeanette was having similar trouble staying engaged...... in her life.
Then a major shift happened for her, the memoir became alive just as her life became worth living... fully.
Taking this journey with this author/narrator was an eye opener for me. Jeanette struggled with love and passion and work and deep depression and rejection and finally redemption but not thank goodness, in the Hollywood way.
I felt redeemed by listening to this book. Thank you Ms. Jeanette Winterson for not being normal. Best wishes on your journey to find happiness.
Ever since I was a child, I've been comforted by spoken word and stories . I love Simon Vance's narratives, Anthony Bourdain's humour.
Jeanette's use of humor is her way of handling often difficult situations with grace and candor. I am enjoying her very interesting although sometimes painful story of growing up "odd" in a time when it was considered...uncool. Her autobiographical story of a an adopted girl who was deprived of books and ended up going to Oxford, brilliantly shining, the shine tarnishing, and somehow developing even now, a new patina. Love her conversational style of writing and bright wit.
This book takes time to get into, but once I did (after the first couple of hours) I was gripped. This is a powerful 'story', - her real life story. It is a journey of self discovery which she shares with the reader, she also shares poems, literature, and psychology that she has read, and that have brought insights to her experience. I felt as if I was being 'told' and 'taught' at the same time and came away with many reflections and insights about my own past, as well as hers. Most of all the book left me thinking about how we all have conflicting feelings about our history, and everyones journey is about trying to integrate these. What an amazing story of survival - respect to your Ms Winterson.
If you are a fan of literary tour-de-force Jeanette Winterson (like I am), this memoir is not to be missed. Winterson's command of the English language and her literary accomplishments juxtapose sharply against her strong north-of-England, working class accent as she narrates her own story. Adopted by a religious fanatic, her story is a powerful example of personal and psychological self-reliance and triumph over adversity. And as a later middle-aged writer reflecting on her past, she charts a path to sanity and love. As readers we celebrate with her. This witty and wry narrative is superb, and superbly read by Winterson herself. Makes me want to go back and re-read Oranges are not the Only Fruit, the Passion, and Sexing the Cherry.
Addicted to books, but especially to audiobooks!
I usually don't read lots of memoirs and biographies, in general I prefer fiction or non-fiction when it pertains to issues that interest me, I must say thought that this is one of the most genuine and emotional memoirs I've ever read.
Jeannette Winterson was born in Manchester, England, and grew up in Accrington, Lacarshire, after being adopted by Constance and John William Winterson in the early 1960's.
This book recounts her quest for her identity, origins, her (birth) mother and ultimately for love and acceptance.
It's a different kind of memoir in that is doesn't follows a chronological structure. She jumps back and forth between different periods in her life, but to me that's one of the reasons why the book sounds so authentic, you almost feel that you are sitting down with a good friend while she is telling you her story.
The author comes across as a clever, witty, and as a person in search for answers. At times her writing sounds urgent and almost desperate. It's feels that she's running out of time and want to explains things to you, she wants to make sure you understand her history. Which l suppose is one of the reasons why people write these type of books, I imagine that this process provides for many, some sort of satisfying and emotional closure.
She also has a great sense of humor and it a wonderful conversationalist. Throughout the book she takes some time to explain some of the cultural, religious and political ethos of the time.
There are also quite a few extremely funny anecdotes. I love that in the middle of such a difficult upbringing, the author has the capacity to laugh at some rather crazy circumstances.
The center theme of the memoir is her descriptions of her very peculiar Pentecostal upbringing, and her tumultuous relationship with her adoptive mother, whom she call through most of the book "Mrs. Winterson".
Mrs. Winterson is described as an "out of scale, larger than life" woman, who at times sounds pretty much deranged. A woman opposed to any sort of intimacy, sexual or otherwise,she casts a huge shadow on the Winterson's household, and little Jeannette doesn't feel loved by either parent. Her father is a withdrawn, simple man who has been belittled by his wife and is incapable of standing up for himself, let alone for his adoptive daughter.
Little Jeannette is abused, both emotionally (her mother constantly alludes that in her adoption process “The Devil led us to the wrong crib”) and physically, she is beaten, left to sleep outside of the house, and pretty much left to her own devices since a very early age.
In Mrs. Winterson's ultra fundamentalist version of Christianity, there's not room for reading secular books, so she forbids Jeannette from reading anything other than the Bible. Jeannette doesn't obeys, of course, and when Mrs. W discovers dozens of books hidden under Jeannette's matters, she burns them all. This was to me a truly disturbing passage of the book.
Later on, Mrs. Winterson discovers that Jeannette is attracted to women and has in fact started a relationship with a girl that also attends her church, this sets in motion a series of events, including the spectacle of a 3-day exorcism performed by the pastor who tries to, to put it on contemporary terms "pray the gay away".
When Jeannette is 16 years old, she is evicted from her home after Mrs. B discovers and 2nd girlfriend, initially she lives in her car, but shortly after she gets under a roof, when a sympathetic teacher takes pity on her and allows her to stay in her house.
Jeannette stars reading English Literature in Prose A-Z, there's a very good public library in her town, and she's determined to read all the authors available in alphabetical order. "A book is a door,” she discovers “You open it. You step through.”
Later on she applied “to read English at Oxford because it was the most impossible thing” she could think of; she graduates; she writes books and becomes a well known and successful author.
The memoir then makes a big jump, and for whatever reason the author decides to take us 25 years later, when she has just broken up with her girlfriend of 6 years. This is when the book becomes more introspective, a search to connect the past with the present.
By now, Mrs. B has passed away and Jeannette has managed to maintain an almost normal relationship with her father.
Jeannette then begins the search for her birth mother, which is perhaps where the reader can feel a deeper sense of empathy and connection with her . She is desperate to find that final link to her past, yet she's also petrified by fear of what she might find. Who can't relate to that feeling?
After jumping many hoops throughout the inept and insensible bureaucracy that apparently rules the adoption system in the UK (I suspect, the same is true in the US and many other Western countries), she manages to find Ann, her birth mother, makes peace with her and her decision to give Jeannette away.
Of course, this being real life, there's not exactly a happy ending, not in the strict sense of the word anyway, so after her first meeting with Ann, she quickly comes to the painful realization that the instant connection she might have been anticipating does not come.
I think that what saves Jeannette Winston is that she possesses both a very clever and inquisitive mind as well as an indomitable and defiant personality.
By the end of the book, she appears to have accomplish an exorcism of her own: what stars as a detailed and painful description of the horrible mother, ends with a sense of closure and forgiveness.
When referring to a discussion she had with Ann, she says "I notice that I hate Ann criticizing Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster". We humans are full of contradictions, aren't we?
Jeannette Winterson is the narrator of her memoir, I am for the most part, not a fan of authors reading their own audiobooks and I do preferred that they live this to the professionals, with that said, Winterson really did a wonderful job. Perhaps because of the 1st person narrative and her writing style is so intense, I don't imagine anybody else being able to narrate this book as well as she did.
I truly enjoyed this wonderful book.
Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.
“Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?” is an autobiographical story published in 2012 by and about Jeanette Winterson, a famous, and talented English writer. It is about belonging to something greater than one self.
Unconditional love only exists between pets and humans; not humans and humans. This is not a cosmic exploration of childhood but it is an intimate and insightful look at an adult’s remembrance of childhood.
Parents do make mistakes with their children but Winterson shows how mistakes can be turned into useful life experiences. The scary part of that usefulness is how much luck is involved in the process.
Winterson's writing is honest, straightforward, and heartfelt. Her performance is engrossing. This is a beautifully contextualized memoir that is about coming to terms with one's self in every way possible and the transformative power of reading and writing.
It's a toss-up. With the book I can better revel in the great prose about Manchester or libraries, while I also enjoyed hearing the author speaking her own words in her own voice about her own life.
Memoirs by other writers, coming out stories, growing up in a fundamentalist family stories, self-help stories about overcoming the past.
Especially loved Chapter 2 about the background of Manchester.
Realizations toward the end which I don't want to spoil.
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