Saturday, March 24, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a homemade, spicy salsa of a memoir.  Biting into it sometimes makes the reader wince but nothing short of a snarky spouse hiding it could possibly keep anyone from devouring this riveting and eerily unnerving tome. I’m tempted to tell you that you really need nothing more than an explication of the title to convince you that you should stop everything to read this book.  Jeanette Winterson was adopted by a religious zealot, a woman so unhappy that she stayed up nights baking cakes to avoid the marital bed and so sure of her convictions that she told her daughter very early in her childhood that “The devil led us to the wrong crib.”  Mrs. Winterson tried beatings, locked her daughter in a coal hole and conducted a sadistic three-day exorcism when she learned that Jeanette was attracted to those of her own sex.  When Jeanette expressed a desire to be happy, her mother asked the question any psychotic parent would ask, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”  When your mother keeps the bullets for her revolver in a can of Pledge, you can be sure that nothing she does will surprise you which may explain how Jeanette Winterson shows humor and a healthy degree of objectivity in describing the woman.  That anyone growing up in such a household could write caringly enough to engender sympathy for Mrs. Winterson is truly a testament to Jeanette Winterson’s skill.

Reading saved the author and eventually won her a spot at Oxford and a career as a novelist perhaps best known in Britain for her 1985 autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and its highly successful television adaptation.  But Winterson couldn’t find the elusive happiness she sought at age sixteen when her mother kicked her out and she thought she’d left the abuse behind.  She stumbles through relationships, battles depression and begins a search for her biological mother.  The second half of the book is an emotionally difficult read because Winterson is so honest in her telling of her own failures.  She succeeds because of who she is:  For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.

Summing it Up:  Read this memoir for Winterson’s laser sharp language and honest portrayal of her life. Savor her ability to show her path to peace.  Published in 2011 in Britain, Why Be Happy was chosen as Best Book of 2011 by The Guardian, Book of the Year for Memoir by The Telegraph and Book of the Week by the BBC. 

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date: March 6, 2012 (U.S.)



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