In this memoir, "Why be happy when you could be normal?" is the last thing the author's mother says to her when kicking her out of the house at the age of sixteen for falling in love with a woman. This is the culmination of a childhood full of horror and misery. After much struggle to prove to herself that she is not defined by her family or her childhood privations, the author begins a search for her birthmother. While the reunion goes well, she finds she is not defined by this family, either.
While parts of the book are bleak, even horrifying, the author writes with humour even in the midst of pain, making the narrative considerably less heavy than it otherwise would be. Apart from adversity, love, hope, and redemption shine through Winterson's lyrical prose.
Ever since my very dear friend Marc quoted from Jeanette Winterson's "Sexing the cherry"("No safety without risk, and what you risk reveals what you value") over dinner earlier this year, which led to my reading that book and, as soon as I could get my hands on them, her other books - I have been fascinated by the way the author tells her story through her stories; genuine and utterly vulnerable,brutally honest and direct, knowing both the limit and the interconnectedness between words and feelings, hauntingly beautiful.
"Why be happy when you could be normal" follows this tradition, but transcends it with a humanity that is deeply moving. While as a reader I agreed with her statement "I do not want to cry. I am crying."(page 184), despite sitting in an open air restaurant in Toronto for lunch on a beautiful day, by page 205 she had this reader in tears ("Darling girl").
The vulnerability that Jeanette (Janet) describes as her experience as an adopted child constructing her identity is really universal: adopted or not (and I am of course not in any way belittling the specific and highly problematic additional burden that adoption may bring) we are all living our lives doing our best to create meaning and understanding for what it is all about and for what we are all about.
One of the best books I have ever read - with greatest admiration for its author: for the skill of her writing, and for the humanity she portraits.
This book - I bought it because of the title, primarily. Inside, I found a surprisingly endearing, warm, wonderful story of family and growing up and finding ones way. If I read a book and decide I won't read it again, no matter how much I like it, I release it to the wild - donate it, give it to the library, sell it. I have a hardcover version of this book, which means in moving, it would be on the first to go list. It's carefully packed. This book is a keeper for me, and a re-reader. It touched my heart.
In the October 28th Guardian, Jeanette has an essay which retells the opening of Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? The retelling is as riveting as the original. In essay and book, Winterson portrays herself as a survivor. Her childhood reads like the darker parts of some Grimms fairytale, even if her telling of the story is often lightened by empathy. Here, for instance, is a description of her often abusive, book-burning, foster mother.
"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."
A later passage reads:
"Babies are frightening - raw tyrants whose only kingdom is their own body. My new mother had a lot of problems with the body - her own, my dad's, their bodies together, and mine. She had muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mixture of nicotine and Jesus, dosed it with purgatives that made her vomit, submitted it to doctors, who administered enemas and pelvic rings, subdued its desires for ordinary touch and comfort. Then suddenly, not out of her own body, and with no preparation, she had a thing that was all body. A burping, vomiting, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life."
Jeanette makes it hard not to feel some sympathy, even for twisted Mrs. Winterson.
Like many patremoirs, Winterson's matremoir is as much about the power of storytelling as it is about the parent. Good writers know how words create reality, and when writing about their parents, they are also acutely aware of how "Truth for anyone is a very complex thing." Also, as Jeanette goes on to say, "For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include." Much of the essay, and presumably the book, is about how Jeanette used books and words to survive and alter the darkness of her world. For her, "Stories are compensatory."
One last quotation from the essay, and then I'm off to try to find a copy of the book:
"Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear ... Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world."
Andre Gerard Editor of Fathers: A Literary Anthology
An amazing and truth filled story from a brilliant writer. Makes more sense if you have read some other of her work, especially oranges are not the only fruit, but still flows. Interesting history lessons along the way and insight into faith and family. Highly recommend and hope she will write more later I'm life too.
Heartbreakingly sad and very, very funny, This was my favourite read from last year. At the time I finished, i immediately picked up Why Be Happy again and reread it because I didnt want to be separated from this young woman and her story so brilliantly told.
Read one life-loving woman's account of her horrendous childhood, how she dealt with it. Jeanette ultimately wouldn't let a severely dysfunctional upbringing extinguish her joie de vivre. Damaged but undefeated, she shares all.
This is an oddly engrossing book. The first bit seemed sort of thrown together, and could have used a more thorough edit, but the rest was a page-turner. Jeanette Winterson is a fascinating person with a fascinating story.