Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson pairs a history of her fierce girlhood with the saga of her midlife search for her biological mother, whom her adoptive mother had always pronounced dead. Many of the coming-of-age events Winterson describes in her memoir echo scenes from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her 1985 debut novel that won the Whitbread Award (but not her mother's respect). Neither book subsumes the other, though: where the novel's set pieces projected outward with black humor, the memoir--even in deadpan descriptions of scenes most people would call child abuse--peers inward with a startlingly compassionate attitude toward the late Mr. and Mrs. Winterson.

The title comes from a question posed by Winterson's adoptive mother, a Pentecostal evangelical from the north of England, after neither exorcism nor the sincere threat of banishment compelled 16-year-old Jeanette to renounce her love for another girl. Mrs. Winterson's idea of being normal included wallpapering all through the night to avoid her conjugal bed and routinely locking her daughter in the coal-hole, but the kinetic energy of Winterson's memoir suggests that she was always predisposed to embrace experience over stasis, regardless of how happy it made her. Such a disposition makes for a vibrant and dramatic memoir--even if it lacks a middle.

Winterson skips from her undergraduate days at Oxford to her 40s (teasing the would-be voyeuristic reader curious about her often-notorious personal life with a "maybe later") in order to regain her maternal theme. The memoir's second half chronicles her profound mental breakdown after she finds some redacted adoption documents in her father's possessions. She is helped through the subsequent (often torturous) legal quest for the truth about her biological parents by her lover, psychotherapist and author (Fat Is a Feminist Issue) Susie Orbach. Winterson is breathtakingly honest about the outcome.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is as compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's great memoir of friendship. (Perhaps both books benefit from having been written quickly, in periods of emotional extremes.) Winterson's memoir is also a tribute to the salvation of narrative, a salvation she found as a teen on the shelves of the Accrington Public Library, in the paperbacks she bought with her market wages and hid under her mattress (until Mrs. Winterson burned them) and in the books she went on to write herself. --Holloway McCandless,

Shelf Talker: Jeanette Winterson's memoir reveals the facts of her fundamentalist childhood (fictionalized in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) and chronicles her quest for the truth about her biological mother.


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