TITLE: WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL?
AUTHOR: JEANETTE WINTERSON
PUBLISHER: VINTAGE BOOKS
COVER TYPE: PAPER BACK
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is my book group read this month.
BLURB FROM THE COVER
In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.
This book is that story’s silent twin. It is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.
THE OPENING LINE
WHEN MY MOTHER WAS ANGRY with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.
I thought Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? was great. It was sad, beautiful, moving and touching in equal amounts. Winterson reduced me to tears several times. Her difficult life as the adopted child of the formidable Mrs Winterson is the polar opposite of my own experiences so my heart bled for her.
I really like the way Winterson structures Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? The memoir doesn’t have a linear or very chronological structure. Each chapter deals with the past and present effortlessly. I usually hate non-linear narratives. I think it works well because Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? is a memoir and the structure sort of echoes the way we remember our past. When we think of the past we don’t think A happened then B happened then C happened. Our memories tend to loop back and forth and wrap around themselves.
Winterson is a good writer. I read her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit years ago and really enjoyed it. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is the fictional version of Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?. I’ve not read anything else by Winterson. I liked her style. I like the way she says things. She brought the events of her past in Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? to memorable life. I have a friend who’s a big reader as well and loathes Winterson. I haven’t read any of her normal fiction but I might have to give her other work a shot. There’s something I really liked about the way she told her story in Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?
I felt I could relate to some of what Winterson went through in Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? Her struggles with her sexuality when she was a teenager, the pain of realising she was a lesbian and her struggles to let herself be happy, fall in love and make a relationship work. I have experienced all of these things myself. At times I felt Winterson was telling part of my own story and this reduced me to tears. It’s hard not to enjoy something you’re reading when you see echoes of your own life and experiences within the pages.
The saddest part of Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? is when Winterson tracks down her birth mother. Winterson goes into great detail about how frustrating and painful this process was. They meet. Her birth mother implies she want to welcome Winterson into her family. Winterson doesn’t want this. She’s glad she was wanted and her birth mother is safe but feels no biological connection to her. There is now wow moment (wow, this is my mother). They end up arguing about Mrs Winterson. Her birth mother makes some nasty remarks about her and Winterson becomes defensive. In her words ‘she was a monster but she was my monster’. This broke my heart a little. I’ve seen reunions between biological parents and children and TV and they always seemed to be joyous. I expected Winterson to experience something similar. I felt really sad when I read these chapters.
Mrs Winterson is a nasty person. She reminded me a little of Carrie White’s mother in Carrie by Stephen King. I mean that as a complement. Her Pentecostal religion bordered on mania. She never raised a hand to Winterson but instructed Mr Winterson how and when to beat her. Winterson details how Mrs Winterson used to lock her in the coal bunker as a punishment and lock her out of the house. Winterson is fifteen when she has a physical relationship with another girl called Helen. Mrs Winterson forces the local priest to perform an exorcism on her because she has demons inside her. At one point the priest has an erection and almost rapes her, telling her it will be better than a girl. This horrified me.
I think the title is great. Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? is perfect. Mrs Winterson actually says this at one point when Winterson discusses her relationship with Helen. She tells Mrs Winterson Helena makes her happy. Mrs Winterson says ‘why be happy when you could be normal?’ to her.
Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? is great. Winterson had a terrible childhood and youth at the hands of the abusive and slightly fanatical Mrs Winterson. This led to her having issues with her sexuality and struggling to make a relationship work. I was very moved by Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?