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the complete review - autobiographical
Why Be Happy
When You Could Be Normal ?
general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author
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B+ : riveting and lively, but ultimately very selective and limited
See our review for fuller assessment.
Most (though not quite all) very impressed
From the Reviews:
- "You could never accuse the early Winterson of being conventional but there is some of that in the final third of the book. Perhaps these painful experiences are too recent. I wondered if the relationship of which she writes, with psychotherapist Susie Orbach, has encouraged a certain therapeutic view of the world." - Sophie Cunningham, The Age
- "Winterson is as concerned with aesthetics as authenticity. Style is king when youíre trying to wrest control of the narrative. And narrative, in the Winterson household, was contested territory. (...) Winterson is the best kind of hero, deeply flawed, all swagger and pluck, and matched against an excellent villain. (...) If Winterson disappoints, itís in her curious insistence on ascribing the development of her style to actual incidents in her life. (...) But for the most part, this bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, hard-won self-knowledge." - Parul Sehgal, Bookforum
- "There's a lot of flinty humor in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoption -- and a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it." - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly
- "The experience of reading Why Be Happy is unusually visceral. Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest. (...) The urgency of Wintersonís language, often excessive and with a heavy reliance on ellipses, make the book read a little like a first draft. Yet, for all its eccentricities, the prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty and vigorous all at once." - Emily Stokes, Financial Times
- "Jeanette Winterson's memoir is written sparsely and hurriedly; it is sometimes so terse it's almost in note form. The impression this gives is not of sloppiness, but a desperate urgency to make the reader understand. 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. (...) There is much here that's impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one's sympathy, for everyone involved" - Zoe Williams, The Guardian
- "Yet it is when we move past her early years in Lancashire to Winterson's depression, her attempt at suicide, and her journey to track down her biological mother, that the life story becomes less familiar, and most moving." - Arifa Akbar, The Independent
- "There is a certain matter-of-factness in the way that Winterson relates these tales; a dryness and economy in her language that serves to distance her from the actions of her oppressors. You sense that, to an extent, these are now just stories to Winterson, made easier to bear in the frequent retelling." - Fiona Sturges, Independent on Sunday
- "(W)hile life denied her a loving mother, circumstance gifted her Mrs Winterson, a subject who honed her writer's eye for the eccentric and made this memoir just as magnificent and absorbing as its fictional other." - Jane Thynne, Literary Review
- "The tone of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? is highly unsettled. Thereís a frequent effect of slippage, a grinding of gears between memoir and newspaper column, that secular sermonette. (...) In this new book the contradictions of Jeanette Wintersonís character are more evident than any perspective on them." - Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books
- "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. (...) The arc of this memoirís narrative breaks into three paths. One is Ms. Wintersonís search for her birth mother: a good story Iíd rather not give away, except to say that it will not soon be made into a Hallmark television movie. The second is Ms. Wintersonís self-invention, her intellectual coming of age. The third is her rather delighted discovery that she likes to be naked with other women." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times
- "Itís a testament to Wintersonís innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her motherís equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
- "This book is a gamble, but then that's perhaps one of the less surprising things about it: Winterson has always been a risk-taking writer, instinctively tempering her own slightly bolshie directness with humour, compassion and kindness." - Julie Myerson, The Observer
- "Now, a quarter century on, this brilliantly titled memoir provides an unflinching account of the raw material that fed those fictional fires. The fury is still there, but it is, if not tempered, then interwoven with hard-won insight that provides a measure of understanding even if it cannot, understandably, reach the sweet waters of forgiveness." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(T)he memoir is brave and beautiful, a testament to the forces of intelligence, heart and imagination. It is a marvellous book and a generous one." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator
- "Wintersonís "gloriously wounded" mother dominates this book ("Love was not an emotion. It was a bomb site between us"), but the purpose of it all is to connect the past to the present; which gives rise to crucial questions about the nature of love, identity and loss." - Sheena Joughin, The Telegraph
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The title of Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? is taken from the parting words her adoptive mother had for her when she left home as a teen.
Since the event that precipitated this change-or-get-out show-down was Jeanette's hooking up with another girl, Mrs Winterson -- as Jeanette refers to her (the adoptive father is referred to as 'Dad') -- presumably means 'normally' sexually oriented, but, yes, Mrs Winterson is baffled why Jeanette can't be 'normal' more generally, too -- in the way she imagines normality should be, that is.
The irony, of course, is that Mrs Winterson is the true nutter and outlier, completely removed from any norm (sexually, too -- she and Dad not only didn't share the bed but didn't even share sleeping times, just to avoid any possible ... unpleasantness).
As is often the case with the religiously obsessed, her 'normality' is, of course, beyond any human reach; Jeanette's failure (in Mrs Winterson's eyes) was inevitable.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? is less memoir than reckoning with Mrs Winterson, and with having been adopted.
Winterson describes her childhood, youth, and many early rebellions, up to her escape to Oxford; there's little about her adult life and writing success, however, as she then focuses on more recent events.
Various personal crises have her even attempting suicide in 2008 -- but she also finally makes a serious effort to find her birth-mother, a process that she presents as a drawn-out bureaucratic nightmare.
It's all a bit much for her to take, or at least it takes her a while (and the helpful guiding hand of her new lover) to begin to come to terms with it, as she slowly comes to realize:
There is a past after all, no matter how much I have written over it.
Despite Mrs Winterson having died back in 1990, and despite having tried to work through much of her childhood trauma in earlier books, most notably Oranges are not the only Fruit, Winterson clearly still hasn't quite come to terms with a lot.
Much of the first part of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? will be familiar to longtime Winterson readers and fans, especially from Oranges are not the only Fruit.
Her bizarre childhood, in a religiously fanatical household where books other than the Bible were considered suspect (not that that stopped Mrs Winterson from eagerly reading mysteries, or led her to do anything to prevent Jeanette from gaining access to whatever she wanted at the local library (where Jeanette worked her way though the fiction section alphabetically)) remains disturbing but riveting even in yet another retelling.
The humble circumstances -- with only an outside toilet (though that wasn't all that unusual for the times) -- are striking, but it's Mrs Winterson's parenting that is so disturbing (Dad doesn't seem to play much of a role, though he does mete out the corporal punishment -- following Mrs Winterson's instructions).
Told quickly and matter-of-factly, Winterson skims across a great deal -- but she has a knack for the stylish, succinct expression, and the arresting anecdote.
It feels a bit simple when, for example, she looks at the "smouldering pile of paper and type" that's all that's left of her hoard of books after Mrs Winterson torches them and then realizes: "'Fuck it', I thought, 'I can write my own'" -- but it certainly is satisfying.
Words are escape and release.
It's something she's good at, and that she can work with:
I had read more, much more, than anybody else, and I knew how words worked in the way that some boys knew how engines worked.
Of course, as far as other people and relationships go, she has a harder time:
I was a loner.
I was self-invented.
I didn't believe in biology or biography.
I believed in myself.
What for ?
Except to hurt you.
Winterson doesn't run away from the past, but she certainly keeps it at a specific, controlled distance.
And that goes for her entire past:
I am terminally uninterested in record-keeping.
I burn my work in progress, and I burn my diaries, and I destroy letters.
I don't want to sell my working papers to Texas and I don't want my personal papers becoming doctoral theses.
I don't understand the family tree obsession.
But then I wouldn't, would I ?
But the past can't simply be eradicated, and obviously continues to have a strong hold on her; the search for her birth-mother opens a whole new (old) can of worms, and points to a new chapter: as she puts it in the closing words of this book: "I have no idea what happens next."
For much of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? Winterson trots out familiar anecdotes and stories.
Her childhood sounds so horrific that more or new detail might indeed be too much for either author or reader to take, and these standard ones do serve their purpose (and are certainly well-told).
Still, it's slightly disappointing that Winterson skims over so much of her adult life, too: she offers a few tantalizing glimpses of her Oxford life and a few bits of her writing-career-success, but this fascinating material is left largely untouched.
Sure, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? isn't meant to be a memoir -- it's a reckoning, with Mrs Winterson and with being adopted -- but it's still a shame (though at least one can hope for a memoir covering these missing decades in the future ...).
Standard Winterson fare, with all the flair and power of her best fiction, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? is a very fine and compelling read.
But it would have been nice to see her expand her range more than she is willing to here.
- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2012
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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ?:
Other books by Jeanette Winterson under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
British author Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959.
She won the 1985 Whitbread Award for best first novel (for Oranges are not the only Fruit), the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and the 1989 E.M.Forster Award, among others.
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© 2012 the complete review
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