Michael'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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Mar 06, 12

Read in March, 2012

I'm supposed to stick with the facts of the matter at hand: offer the relative merits and shortcomings (as I see them) of Ms. Winterson's deeply moving and highly recommended memoir, about which it's reasonable to assume you must be fairly curious -- either to find out if this particular book might be a pleasurable use of your time -- or to siphon off some affirmation, some validation, some articulation of your own reaction, be it positive or negative, after having read it. But fair warning to you follows: sticking to the facts I will not be.

This is because I began reading this book while my mother was dying, and finished it not long after she finished the job.

This was a coincidence. Accidental. She was to live much longer than she managed to, but a star must have winked out somewhere, and she decided to hitch a ride.

(Also, she must have checked the forecast. The days spanning her funeral services were truly glorious.)

But now I'm sitting here in a Panera cafe, waiting to cry. I want to get this written, but I can feel the emotion burning my retinas, and I don't know if I can.

With Jeanette Winterson, it's impossible to know where she will take you before the pages end, no matter how well you think you already know her particular brand of letters.

But you can be assured the destination will be authentic for the both of you -- like finding a spot of your own in the world to inhabit, a place that might not have been your own had the earth managed its rotation around itself or around the Sun at a slightly slower or faster speed, or at a different angle in space, or if the momentum that is the expansion of the universe had begun from inside time and wasn't what our physicists call the beginning of time.

But it is your own and no one else's, that spot. And that means you're not quite yet out of time. You're still breathing. Nor are you outside time, like things may have been before the universe was born, and that means for good or ill, you're accountable to someone somewhere, even if it's just the medical examiner or doctor who pronounces you dead at the corpuscular end of things, or to nature for the spot you'd found to call your own for a while, or to yourself at the end of a Winterson memoir like this one, at which you might find it prudent to reexamine the meaning of your life, or the loss of a life close to you (like I did).

It's an inarguably authentic space to be. There can be no question that there exists a series of moments meant for you to inhabit, moments so singular they could never be anyone else's, and you can thank God (or credit no one at all if that's your ken), and you're in the place that proves it when you come to the end of any book, but especially when you come to the end of a Winterson book.

For example and for me, in Panera, with this beautiful and deliriously moving memoir, trying to find a way to express the uniqueness of this moment: me, the author, both of us at the end of her book, experiencing a connection in Panera that will never be duplicated anywhere or anytime else.

So many improbabilities add up to this moment. I miss my mother terribly much. It's been 12 days since her passing. Jeannette's memoir, as much about her late mother's life as her own, how they are intertwined and inseparable, self-wounding and self-healing, helps me to understand the separation death brings me from my own mother, how utterly inadequate any words are to express the devastation felt, without even the smallest consolation my feelings of loss will ever truly go away.

I've got a connecting pain, like Winterson has with her late adoptive mother and her living biological mother, and it's my job to earn the pain born of my own loss, to give it meaning, to give my mother's death meaning, and accept how self-defeating it would be not to let the pain enrich my life, since it will never truly go away.

Here is the lesson I learned: My sadness is in itself a cruel twist of the universe and a priceless gift; it binds my mother to me, redefines our relationship as both entropic and unending, an utterly foreign concept to the land of the living, a ceaseless paradox until the universe itself decides to bring us to an end -- in this universe or the next, in this life or the next, or never.

Is it presumptuous of me to think that's all you ever really wanted to achieve in writing your memoir?

Thanks Jeanette. You've helped tremendously..
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