jo's Reviews > Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
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Oct 02, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: mama-is-crazy, memoir, psychic-pain, queer, great-britain
Read from June 11 to 14, 2012

this book is a broken elegy to the north of england and a world of small shops, small communities, and simple habits that no longer exists. it's also a tribute to a hardy working class people who knows resilience, pluckiness, no-nonsensicality, and making a life out of what you are given. surprisingly, it's a vindication of the values of faith, which keep people under the direst circumstances out of the clutches of despair and of the feeling of being trapped. these are winterson's words. this truly abused kid never felt despair or a sense of being trapped while she grew up. there was faith for that. no one else felt it either.

have i read too little winterson to know that she writes like this? i remember her prose as lyrical and full of surprises. this is simple, direct, often hysterical in spite of all the horrors (i laughed out loud a lot), and wry. maybe all of her books are written like this and i don't remember. maybe this is written like this because there are only so many ways in which you can describe mayhem.

i have been reading three mother-memoirs in a row (cheryl strayed's Wild and alison bechdel's Are You My Mother? before this) and though all three of them are painful, this is the one that takes the cake for me (all three of them are great, too).

jeanette winterson was given up for adoption six weeks after she was born. in those six weeks she was breastfed and loved. the family who adopted her consisted of a factory worker and a homesteader. mrs. winterson was a true force of nature, not necessarily in a good way. she was definitely a withering and wintering force of nature for poor jeanette, who disappointed her mom (the book shows it could not have been otherwise) by being a girl (turns out the wintersons had settled on a little boy), by being herself a little concentrated force of nature, and by being the devil's spawn. it is not entirely clear what terrible things jeanette did, but she was often punished in unbelievably cruel ways, and she was never loved.

this book is in many ways mrs. winterson's story. she deserves a story and she is lucky her daughter is a fabulous writer. this terrible woman who loved all that is death-like in christianity and lived under the sign of the apocalypse, renunciation of all worldly pleasure, and doom, is described with great compassion. jeanette must have loved her very much. she must have wanted her very much. she must also have been furiously angry at her, but this book is about forgiveness, not anger.

when young willful jeanette falls in love with a girl mrs. winterson basically say it's either the girl or you and jeanette spends the following couple of years sleeping in a borrowed car while going to school full time and having a part-time job. she is sixteen.

then, because she is jeanette winterson and nothing but nothing will ever stop her from getting what she wants, she gets herself into oxford. if you read the first part of the book without knowing who jeanette winterson is, the fact that she got herself into oxford will make your jaw drop. how on earth could this working class girl who had lived in a place stuck several decades behind real time get into one of the most exclusive universities in the world?

well, she did.

in the second part of the book jeanette moves to the very near present and talks about a terrible breakdown she suffered when she was in her late 40s. i won't say what brought it on but it doesn't really matter. in passing she also tells us that she had two more breakdowns and one psychotic crisis. also, she seems to be one of those people who hear voices without having other psychotic symptoms. apparently she heard voices all through her life. in Agnes's Jacket psychology professor gail hornstein debunks the myth that people who hear voices are invariably schizophrenic or bipolar and need to be medicated to kingdom come (i'm sure she's not the first to say so, but her book is the first where i read it). there are indeed people who hear voices but lead an otherwise normal life.

why JW had breakdowns; why she always had a terrible time sustaining loving relationships; why she was troubled all her life is not something that is very difficult to understand. she spent the first 16 years of her life not getting any love. this tends not to do wonders for one's psychological health.

this book is also an ode to books and words. books and words saved young jeanette, plain and simple. books and words have saved many unloved kids and will continue to do so as long as humankind exists, because there will always be unloved kids and works of literature. her love for and gratitude to literature could not be bigger. it's time for me to read all of her books.
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03/02/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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Emilie you found your jeanette winterson!


message 2: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo yes. have you read this?


Jennifer (aka EM) wow. i read sexing the cherry a million years ago and didn't get it. i'm inspired by this to maybe try again. I had no idea this was her life. thank you for sharing this.


message 4: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "wow. i read sexing the cherry a million years ago and didn't get it. i'm inspired by this to maybe try again. I had no idea this was her life. thank you for sharing this."

thank you jen. maybe we can try again together!


message 5: by Simon (new)

Simon Great review!


message 6: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie fascinating story jo (and your peace flag matches that beach ball on the cover!)


message 7: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo ha. good point. hahaha. v. few people recognize it as a peace flag. have you been to italy?


message 8: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie jo wrote: "ha. good point. hahaha. v. few people recognize it as a peace flag. have you been to italy?"

No indeed....some day. Are you from Italy ?


message 9: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo yes, i am.


message 10: by Hazel (last edited Jun 15, 2012 11:36AM) (new)

Hazel jo, I usually avoid 'mama-is-crazy' stories, but you make this sound so good... Thank you.

Great title, too.


message 11: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo most literature has a crazy mother. this said, i hesitated over using this tag for this book, because JW's mother is not crazy. she does crazy things but she's not crazy. in the conventional sense. in the conventional sense, she's not crazy.


Emilie jo wrote: "yes. have you read this?"

no, i haven't.


message 13: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Great review. I really enjoyed "Art & Lies" by Winterson. Just don't go into it expecting a plot. It's more like a long gorgeous poem full of things that I wanted to underline.


message 14: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you, sarah. and thank you!


Cecily The passion for words and books is one of the many things I love about this book. That and the fact that despite the horror of aspects of her childhood, she does not wallow in misery.


Jessica great review, jo.
there is so much in this slender book.


message 17: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you jessica. i was just now checking out your books on amazon! INTRIGUING!!!


Jessica ha! well, thanks.


Jessica p.s. what are your favorite books of JW's? Have you read many? I haven't and want to start.


message 20: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo i've only read The Passion and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. i, too, want to read them all now.


green-earth Excellent review!


message 22: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo Thank you Miriam.


message 23: by Sarah (new)

Sarah i just tried to go like this review and then realized i already did! =) i'm re-convinced again that i need to get this sucker from the library.


message 24: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo hahahhahaha. it happens to me too! thank you sarah. get the sucker from the library. it's good. JW is a magic writer.


message 25: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo hahahahahah. thank you duha. :)


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