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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by…

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Jeanette Winterson

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1,101697,536 (4.05)140
Title:Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Authors:Jeanette Winterson
Info:Vintage (2012), Paperback, 240 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:read in 2013, autobiography, 2010s, *GB literature

Work details

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)

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    The Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay (thorold)
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    Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber (akblanchard)
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I usually don't read lots of memoirs and biographies, in general I prefer fiction or non-fiction, but I must say thought that this is one of the most genuine and emotional memoirs I've ever read.

Jeannette Winterson was born in Manchester, England, and grew up in Accrington, Lacarshire after being adopted by Constance and John William Winterson in the early 1960's.

This book recounts her quest for her identity, origin, her (birth) mother and ultimately for love and acceptance.
It's a different kind of memoir in that is doesn't follows a chronological structure. She jumps back and forth between different periods in her life, and that's probably why the book feels so authentic, you have a sense that you are sitting down with a good friend while she is telling you her story.

The author comes across as a clever, witty, and as a person in search of answers. At times she writes with great urgency, almost desperation. It's feels as if she's running out of time and want to explain things to you, she wants to make sure you understand her history. Which l suppose is one of the reasons why people write these type memoirs, I think that this process provides for many emotional closure.

Winterson has a great sense of humor and is a wonderful conversationalist. Throughout the book she takes time to explain some of the cultural, religious and political ethos of these times in the UK.

There are also quite a few extremely funny anecdotes. I love that in the middle of such a difficult upbringing, the author has the capacity to laugh at some rather peculiar and crazy circumstances.

The center theme of the memoir is her descriptions of her very peculiar Pentecostal upbringing as well as her tumultuous relationship with her adoptive mother, whom she calls through most of the book "Mrs. Winterson".

Mrs. Winterson is described as an "out of scale, larger than life" woman who at times sounds pretty much deranged. A woman opposed to any sort of intimacy, sexual or otherwise, she casts a huge shadow on the Winterson's household, and little Jeannette doesn't feel loved by either parent. Her father is a withdrawn, simple man who has been belittled by his wife and is incapable of standing up for himself, let alone for his adoptive daughter.

Little Jeannette is abused, both emotionally (her mother constantly alludes that in her adoption process “the Devil led us to the wrong crib”) and physically, she is beaten, forced to sleep outside of the house, and pretty much left to her own devices at a very early age.

In Mrs. Winterson's ultra fundamentalist version of Christianity, there's not room for reading secular books, so she forbids Jeannette from reading anything other than the Bible. Jeannette doesn't obeys, of course, and when Mrs. W discovers dozens of books hidden under Jeannette's mattress, she burns them all. This was to me a painful passage to read(as I am sure it would be for most readers)

Later on, Mrs. Winterson discovers that Jeannette is attracted to women and has in fact started a relationship with a girl that also attends her church, this sets in motion a series of events, culminating with the spectacle of a 3-day exorcism performed by the pastor who tries to, to put it on contemporary terms "pray the gay away".

When Jeannette is 16 years old, she is evicted from her home after Mrs. W discovers a 2nd girlfriend, initially she lives in her car, but shortly after she gets under a roof, when a sympathetic teacher takes pity on her and allows her to stay in her house.

Jeannette stars reading English Literature in Prose A-Z, as she calls it. There's a very good public library in her town, and she's determined to read all the available authors in alphabetical order. "A book is a door,” she discovers “You open it. You step through.”

Eventually she applies “to read English at Oxford because, "it was the most impossible thing” she could think of; she graduates, she writes books and becomes a well known and successful author.

The memoir then makes a big jump, and for whatever reason the author decides to take her story 25 years later, when she has just broken up with her girlfriend of 6 years. This is when her writing becomes more introspective, a search to connect the past with the present.
By now, Mrs. W has passed away and Jeannette has managed to maintain an almost normal relationship with her father.

The author then begins the search for her birth mother, which is perhaps where the reader can feel a deeper sense of empathy and connection with her. She is desperate to find that final link to her past, yet she's also petrified by fear of what she might find. Who can't relate to that feeling?

After jumping many hoops throughout the inept and insensible bureaucracy that apparently rules the adoption system in the UK (I suspect, the same is true in the US and other Western countries), she manages to find Ann, her birth mother, makes peace with her and her decision to give Jeannette away.

Of course, this being real life, there's not exactly a happy ending, not in the strict sense of the word anyway, so after her first meeting with Ann, she quickly comes to the realization that the instant connection she might had been anticipating does not come.

Finally, I think that what saves Jeannette Winston is that she possesses both a very clever and inquisitive mind as well as an indomitable and defiant personality.

By the end of the book, she appears to have accomplish an exorcism of her own: what starts as a detailed and painful description of the horrible mother, ends with a sense of closure and forgiveness.
When referring to a discussion she had with Ann, she says "I notice that I hate Ann criticizing Mrs. Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster". We humans are full of contradictions, aren't we?

Jeannette Winterson is the audiobook narrator of her memoir, I am for the most part, not a fan of authors narrating their own books and I do preferred that they leave this to the professionals, with that said, Winterson really did a wonderful job. Perhaps because of the 1st person narrative and also because her writing style is so intense, I don't imagine anybody else being able to narrate this book as well as she did.

This is an unforgettable and extraordinary memoir. ( )
1 vote irisper012106 | Nov 1, 2015 |
Current review:

One of those books that makes you want to read a paragraph aloud at least once a page. This book will make you annoying to your family. Read it anyway.

Previous review:

Just. Too. Good.

I had to return it to the library today. I'm going to put it on my wish list so I'll have a copy of my own to fill with Post-it notes. In the meantime, I posted lots of quotes on my Facebook Book Nerds page. ( )
  Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 2015 |
Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Accrington, England and the story begins just before she is adopted by the Winterson. The story follows the life of the girl and the struggles throughout the years.
When she turns 16 she leaves, she is a lesbian and the family is very religious. Each have their own routines and it's quite plain and boring. No car so they walk everywhere, usually miles per day.
Lots of quoting from the Bible and from literary works. Troubled times as she doesn't fit in and manages to find her mother and they do meet. Lots of questions and lots of answers to those. ( )
  jbarr5 | Jun 30, 2015 |
Jeanette Winterson was a giant in my young life. I think I hopped off the train at Lighthousekeeping, which I may revisit, but which didn't seem to have the force of Oranges or Sexing the Cherry. Her work hasn't had an active presence in my mind for a few years, acting more like part of the foundation or a constellation in my firmament. I chanced upon her reading from her memoir at AWP. She was supposed to read with Allison Bechdel, who canceled, so she just expanded. It was great. What a book to happen upon when you're in a rut and your leisure reading feels like homework and you want need something to take you back to reading as play, as salvation. By turns it is an: adoption narrative, biography of her mother, coming of age story, snapshot of industrial North England through the lens of a working class evangelical family. It would have been easy for Winterson to frame her mother as a monster or to expose evangelical christianity as total bunk, but she doesn't. As she discusses towards the end of the book, her approach is to resist easy dualisms. Plus it's impossible to imagine her writing herself into the role of victim. Wounded, emotional, shaped by her circumstances but not a victim. The end felt messy, I think, for the same reasons that it was such an engaging read - I was happy with the genre bending, but then I wanted it neatly tied up. Ultimately, I'm glad Winterson didn't give in and write the payoff ending that readers are so conditioned to want.

The parts about books and reading really got to me. She visited her local library and set herself the goal of reading through the section labelled "English Literature: A-Z". How encountering Nabokov made her a feminist. Stacking books under her mattress only to have her mother burn them. I die! Being part of a literary community sometimes has the paradoxical effect of obscuring the simple and profound truth that reading and writing have the power to save you. There, inner snarker - I said it! This is the truth I live by.
( )
  oh_that_zoe | May 21, 2015 |
Jeanette Winterson is the author of several novels, including Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which brought her recognition and fame, especially in the UK. Oranges was semi-autobiographical; this memoir is the real story of her unconventional upbringing. The adopted daughter of a domineering, sexually repressed, fanatically religious mother, Jeanette was subject to emotional and physical abuse until she left home at sixteen. Through a near miracle she earned a place at Oxford and was able to realize her dream of becoming a writer. But while she appeared outwardly successful, the scars of abuse had not even begun to heal. Convinced she had never been loved and was unable to love others, she became estranged from her parents and found it difficult to be in relationship with others.

Jeanette’s journey through these trials is fascinating and turbulent. It took me a while to become
emotionally invested in her story, but I got there, and when she began searching for her birth mother, I admired her tenacity and was reminded of a quote early in the book:
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.

I admire Jeanette Winterson for never doing “the sensible thing.” ( )
  lauralkeet | Jan 25, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
Where Winterson's debut, a tragic-comic tale of a young girl who is adopted by Pentecostal missionaries in Accrington, offered us a semi-fictionalised version of her childhood, her latest describes the reality. And what a hellish reality it was. Winterson's story is one of abandonment, loneliness, madness and defiance. It is both inspiring and appalling, its cruellest details only made digestible by the restrained elegance of Winterson's prose.
This is certainly the most moving book of Winterson's I have ever read, and it also feels like the most turbulent and the least controlled.
added by thorold | editThe Guardian, Zoe Williams (Nov 4, 2011)
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To my three mothers:
Constance Winterson
Ruth Rendell
Ann S
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When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, 'The Devil led us to the wrong crib.'
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This memoir is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, an identity, a home, and a mother by the author of "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit"--winner of the Whitbread First Novel award and the inspiration behind the award-winning BBC television adaptation "Oranges."… (more)

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