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.
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.
Excellent memoir. I really enjoyed this author. Very insiteful and thought provoking. This will lead me to read her other books.
The story of Winterson's adopted life and finding her birth mother. As the child of an adpotee, it gave me insight into my mother's personality quirks.
I loved listening to Jeanette's accent, she spends a good amount of time talking about where she is from in the UK, and had the narrator had a traditional BBC accent, I think some of the flavor would have been lost.
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.
Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, probably her most famous novel, called “Oranges are not the Only Fruit” was semi-autiobiographical, about an adopted girl and her search for love and meaning. This is Winterson’s memoir of actual events. She was adopted by very dysfunctional parents, including a mother, (whom she always referred to as Mrs. Winterson) who was a religious zealot, never approved of Jeanette, which got worse when Jeanette came out to her as a lesbian, and who did things as punishment like locking her out of the house overnight, not giving her a key when her parents went away for a week thus forcing her to live out of other people’s houses and a van, and putting her in the coal hole for punishment. The title of the book comes from her conversation with Mrs. Winterson when she came out to her. Mrs. Winterson asked: “why are you like that?” Jeanette answered that she preferred women, and that her girl friend made her happy. Mrs. Winterson responded with: “Why would you want to be happy when you could be normal?” Jeanette left home at 16, managed to get the money together to go to Oxford and did well there, and began her successful career writing books. But her upbringing, the feeling she never was loved or wanted, continued to disturb her. She finally decided to search for her biological mother. She had Suzie Allbright as a lover, (one of Suzie’s first books was “fat as a Feminist Issue”) and she had help in finding her adopted mother by the like of author, Ruth Rendell. This is a very honest, in-your-face account of coming to terms with her life and finding her biological mother. And the process continues to evolve. I loved this book, and as the author she absolutely was the best narrator there could have been for the book. Strongly recommended.
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