Definitely not a misery memoir…

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

In anyone else’s hands, this would be a misery memoir, however, in Jeanette Winterson’s, the memoir become more of a search for happiness.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on curcumstances, and a bit bovine.
If the sun is shining, stand in it – yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes.
The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centred.
What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life…
… The pursuit isn’t all or nothing – it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.

It covers two periods in her life. Her childhood up until finishing university, and then jumping twenty-five years to a time when a long-term relationship broke up and she started to search for her birth-mother.

Those who’ve read Winterson’s debut novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, or seen her TV adaptation of it, will recognise much autobiographical detail that went into the novel. Here though, she is trying to understand the odd couple that adopted her as a baby – the mother that married down, and shows she is better than others by having a display cabinet of Royal Albert china; and the working class  father who survived the first push of the D-Day landings with just his bayonet.

But it is Mrs Winterson that looms the largest over Jeanette’s life. The woman that gave her the title for this book – a parting question, said as Jeanette walked out aged sixteen after having been caught being too close to another girl. Mrs Winterson was complex. “She was an intelligent woman, and somewhere in the middle of the insane theology and the brutal politics, the flamboyant depression and the refusal of books, of knowledge, of life, she had watched the atomic bomb go off and realised that the true nature of the world is energy and not mass.”

Jeanette was so determined, and thanks to a friend or two, a helpful teacher and a librarian, not only survived college and arrived at Oxford, where her passion for literature was nurtured.  Here I felt a bond with her – I was at university too in 1979 when I was first able to vote, and similarly voted for a woman rather than her policies!

The latter few chapters in which she describes her breakdown after the end of her relationship with Deborah Warner make for tough reading, and then when she comes through that slough of despond in her happiness meter, she takes on the legal system that depersonalises everything and put her on the emotional roller-coaster again to search out her birth-mother.

This book was candid, funny and emotional; full of philosophical insight and interesting short digressions into the history of Manchester and its satellites, and all about literary passions of course.  Winterson has had a lot to be miserable about, but, being a scrapper, she has nearly always been able to turn it around to get something positive out of it – but always, always, she is looking for love and belonging.  (9/10)

For another view, read John Self’s review here.

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I was given my copy for Christmas. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, pub 2011 by Jonathan Cape, 240pp.  Vintage Paperback now out.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit [DVD]

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8 thoughts on “Definitely not a misery memoir…

    • Thanks. It’s funny – I feel like I’ve read more Winterson books than I actually have! She is always interesting to read though. ‘Weight’ will be the next one probably.

  1. I may need to buy this soon (despite self impossed book buying embargo) I loved Oranges are not the only fruit – read the book and saw the TV series which I thought brilliant. That is the only book of Jeanette Winterson’s that I have read though.

    • I have yet to read the book of Oranges… but loved the TV series. I should compare and contrast soon I think.

  2. This is a really interesting review. I recall reading a review of this book on another blog and it suggested that the misery of her life overwhelmed the book. I’m intrigued that you have seen it differently because I’d been put off the book by that review – you’ve made me think again! I really enjoyed Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, so I think I’ll look out for this memoir and read it for myself if I get a chance.

    • The later bit where she had a breakdown was totally miserable and came as something of a shock. But, in the largest part of the book which tells of her childhood into young adulthood, her spirit just shone through for me, and I could see past the misery. Hope you find that too if you do read it Col!

  3. I hears sections of this read on the radio and made a mental note to buy a copy. Like lots of my mental notes that one got lost. Thank you for reminding me. Let’s hope a written note survives better.

  4. I’ve got Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit a couple of years ago when I went to see Winterson talk. I still haven’t read it yet but I plan to. And when I do, it’ll be in her voice because she’s such an amazing and lyrical speaker. Lovely review, Annabel.

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