Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Nonfiction. Memoir. Published 2012 by Grove Press.

So it seems to be Jeanette Winterson Week here on Boston Bibliophile. Could be worse. I mean, Winterson is one of the best living writers in English. I bought this book, her memoir, when it came out but it took me until late last year to read it. After I read The Daylight Gate I knew I couldn't wait any longer, and I'm sorry I waited as long as I did.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is really the story of Winterson's three mothers- Constance Winterson, who raised her and who is referred to throughout as "Mrs. Winterson," Winterson's biological mother, and her third mother which is literature, which first saved her life and then gave her a living.

Winterson is adopted as a baby by a working-class Manchester couple who are religious fundamentalists and abuse her horribly. Mrs. Winterson locks her out of the house repeatedly, beats her, instructs her husband to beat her and torments her psychologically. Young Jeanette takes refuge in books and reading, forbidden in her house as all she's allowed to read is the Bible. She has a relationship with a female friend and soon realizes what she's always known, that she has to leave home. As a teenager Jeanette runs away and with the help of teachers gets accepted to Oxford. From there she begins to develop as a writer and as a person. Not surprisingly she has a lot of anger to deal with.

As adult Winterson decides to take on the task of finding her biological mother, and this process occupies the final third of the book. The narrative structure is more or less chronological but not strictly so, and the tone and style of the book feels similar to much of her fiction, at times highly descriptive and impressionistic and at others more focused and forward-moving. Winterson's painful relationship with Mrs. Winterson is hard to read sometimes; my heart broke repeatedly for the little girl looking for love from a mother incapable of giving it.

The book has obvious appeal for adoptees but I think Winterson's search, which is for home in many senses of the word, is something almost everyone can relate to in some ways. The depth of alienation she feels from her parents is profound, and she does not find much solace in her biological family, but I got the impression that she has found a home and a family in her adult relationships and the book ends on notes of hard-earned peace and contentment. I was very moved and affected by her story, and I would recommend it to her fans and those of memoir but also to any reader looking for a beautifully written, if sometimes dark, family story.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


bermudaonion said...

Being the memoir junkie that I am, this book really appeals to me. The title is fantastic!

Audra said...

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit almost broke me -- not sure I could make it through this one, despite being a huge Winterson fan.

Amy Meyer said...

I had no idea Winterson had such a dark, painful childhood. Just reading your review made me feel heartbroken for her. I'm so glad she succeeded career-wise and sincerely hope she found acceptance and the kind of love she was loving for as a child in her adult relationships. It just galls me to think people adopt a child and then abuse the child. It makes no sense.

Your post is wonderful and I'm going to try to read this book at some point.