Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson

It was late December, the end of a muscular holiday season for print books. I had a little bit of holiday downtime and I was without anything to read. I had been gifted with In Praise of Messy Lives by essayist Katie Roiphe, which I was enjoying to a point, but Roiphe lacked a certain passion I was looking for, and while I certainly agreed with many of her observations, I was in the mood for something more poetic--something that challenged convention, for sure, but that had more heart. I took home Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson and found what I was looking for.

In this autobiographical work, Jeanette Winterson discusses her life with her adoptive mother (whom she refers to as Mrs.Winterson), tracing the neurosis and pain that filled the two up, two down home she lived in during her childhood. Mrs. Winterson, a newly minted pentecostal evangelical living "beyond the provinces" in northern England, had adopted Jeanette at the age of 37. Young, battered, spirited Jeanette is unveiled through a bare-chested style of divulgence reminiscent of Ian Brown, and Winterson here displays the incredible wordsmithing that distinguishes her other works.

Winterson does not out of hand reject the religiosity of her upbringing, touching here and there on the human need for meaning and purpose beyond material accumulation even as she details the humiliation and heartbreak brought to her by the exorcism she endured when her preference for the fairer sex was revealed. Her father, while never joining with her mother to punish her, also never stood shoulder to shoulder with his daughter, instead picking up a couple more shifts at work when things got intense. Winterson suggests that the pain afflicting her father's generation is enough of an explanation for his withdrawal, and does not appear conflicted about her relationship with him.

Mrs. Winterson is a completely different story. Jeanette had to hide the most generous and inspired parts of herself away, tucked under mattresses or in the back seat of a borrowed mini. Frequently locked out all night on the steps while her mother read about the end of the world, Jeanette in great defiance let books and the words of others nurture her. For me, the bravery of the book is in those musings--the parts that reflect this dazzling, fierce, engaged woman who was raised in the dark. In spite of her love affair with life, she writes about what a terrible partner she was; love, as she says, is the simplest of things and the most difficult. But again, it was her words that came to save her, the coiled imagination latent and powerful.

- Hannah


  1. This book sounds a bit like "The Glass Castle" (Jeanette Walls) or "To Close to the Falls" (Catherine Gildiner). Have you read these books? Do you think this book stands out from them?

    1. Hi! The three books are all memoirs, and I know in particular that Walls's book holds much tragedy, but Why Be Happy should be set apart. Winterson uses humor and reconciliation as she reviews the wildness of her upbringing. Fundamentally it is a book about creativity and the love of literature that shaped who she became. It is really(!) worth the read. -Hannah