Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

For graduation, my creative nonfiction professor gave me a book as a parting gift: Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? It was really good. I read it in about 3 days.

Jeanette has had quite the tumultuous life. Her adoptive mother, whom she calls Mrs. Winterson, was an extreme depressive who insisted that she had chosen “the wrong crib” when she’d adopted Jeanette. Mrs. Winterson hid a revolver in a kitchen drawer and refused to let her daughter in the house some nights, forcing her to sleep on the doorstep. She was a fanatical Pentecostal Christian with an obsession for the End of Days who banned all books except religious ones. Jeanette’s father hit her whenever her mother instructed him to do so.

Two things strongly appealed to me in this memoir: Jeanette’s experience as a lesbian and her experience as a reader/writer.

When Jeanette was a teenager, her mother discovered she was in a relationship with another girl and proceeded to out her to their church congregation and arrange for an exorcism. Jeanette was placed in a cold room for several days where she was prayed over and sexually assaulted. She ended up running away from home at age 16, unable to bear living there any longer. Years later, when she explained to her mother that it made her happy to be with the woman she loved, her mother replied, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

The avid reader and English major in me was also fascinated by Jeanette’s love of literature. While she was still living at home, she began reading “English Literature A-Z” at her local library. She took a lot of comfort in books, in knowing that the knowledge she gained from them could never be snatched from her, even when Mrs. Winterson found and burned all of them (which Jeanette would hide underneath her mattress). She would read in their outhouse and at night after everyone was asleep, and she would write outside.

Eventually she got herself to Oxford, where she studied English, and wrote her first, semi-autobiographical and best-known book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit at age 25. (It’s a fabulous book.)

The rest of her memoir details her search for the records of her biological parents, her psychological breakdown, and her journey towards learning how to love and be loved. It was a profoundly sad book, but it was also an incredibly inspiring and honest exploration of healing from the pain of the past. It was one of those rare books that not only tells someone else’s story but also teaches you about yours while you’re reading it.

I also really loved Jeanette’s writing style. She jumped around, telling small, entertaining vignettes to demonstrate her insights on her family, her home town, literature, writing, love, and life in general. Her prose is beautiful. I’d like to try out her style.

A few quotations:

“I had styled myself as the Lone Ranger not Lassie. What I had to understand is that you can be a loner and want to be claimed.”

“There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people.”

“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.”

“I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it.”

“Leaving home can only happen because there is a home to leave. And the leaving is never just a geographical or spatial separation; it is an emotional separation – wanted or unwanted.”

“Going mad is the beginning of a process. It is not supposed to be the end result.”

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