Reading group reviews: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
16 August 2012 / 1 Comment
Readers in reading groups across the country have been busy reading and reviewing Jeanette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. Here's what they thought, along with more information about the book if your reading group or book club are interested in reading it.
If your reading group or book club has read the book, please do use this page to post your reviews and see what other reading group members think of it.
About the memoir
In 1985 Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette's version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is that story's silent twin. It is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.
Read an extract.
Listen to Jeanette read from Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?
About Jeannette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester, England, and adopted by Pentecostal parents who brought her up in the nearby mill-town of Accrington. As a Northern working class girl she was not encouraged to be clever. Her adopted father was a factory worker, her mother stayed at home.
There were only six books in the house, including the Bible and Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments. Strangely, one of the other books was Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and it was this that started her life quest of reading and writing. The house had no bathroom either, which was fortunate because it meant that Jeanette could read her books by flashlight in the outside toilet. Reading was not much approved unless it was the Bible. Her parents intended her for the missionary field.
Schooling was erratic but Jeanette had got herself into a girl's grammar school and later she read English at Oxford University. This was not an easy transition. Jeanette had left home at 16 after falling in love with another girl. While she took her A levels she lived in various places, supporting herself by evening and weekend work. In a year off to earn money, she worked as a domestic in a lunatic asylum.
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Joan Clifford from Coal Clough Library Reading Group
I really liked this book. It manages to be both sad and funny and is very easy to read. Mrs Winterson is such a larger than life character--if this were a work of fiction, you would think her unbelievable--and yet the author makes you feel sorry for her. She could have had a very happy life with her husband and daughter but for some reason she chose not to. Poor Jeanette-she would have been better off with her real family. Although they were poor they would have loved her. These days she would probably be taken into care if she was locked out at night.
Mr Winterson is very much a background figure in the book, without the strength to stand up for himself or Jeanette, but they must have had some kind of a relationship, as they spent time together up to his death. I wonder how much he later regretted his failure to intervene when Mrs Winterson was cruel.
I loved the style of writing. This is a sad story but the author doesn't ask for the reader's pity. She admits herself that without the Wintersons she would be a different person, less well educated and almost certainly not a writer.
I found the descriptions of her depression particularly touching. At the end of the book I was sad that after so much searching Jeanette decided not to maintain a relationship with the mother who gave her away. Perhaps the end of the search was always going to be disappointing for her.
I intend to read more of Jeanette Winterson's books.
Margaret Nichols gives her views
Jeanette Winterson's memoir of her unusual upbringing was very moving. Her adoptive mother Mrs Winterson was quite an ogre with many problems of her own. Jeanette has the insight to acknowledge that her childhood has left her damaged and unable to sustain relationships. Well into adulthood she found her birth mother, but did not want a close relationship even with her. Jeanette's writing has sustained her throughout her troubles. A worthwhile read, with it's themes of adoption, evangelism and lesbianism.
Laura Sheridan is a bit disappointed...
My first reaction was one of disappointment as I thought the book was going to be fictional; then more disappointment as I thought it was going to humorous. The title suggested this would be a jolly romp. Not so, unfortunately.
As an autobiography, there were some amusing parts to it, but I felt a lot of the material was self-indulgent. She seemed to wallow in her unhappy childhood, but lots of people have had unhappy childhoods in one form or another. I certainly wouldn't go back to mine. So I felt she was speaking as if she were a special case. Parents do mess you up, as Philip Larkin's famous poem says, though a little more eloquently. Seems to me the mother had a mental health problem, actually, and it should have been sorted out.
The author goes on about being a lesbian and I'm not sure I saw the relevance of that, except that her mother wouldn't accept it; but the woman was cuckoo anyway and you can't expect someone like that to be reasonable. Throughout the book, the author scatters in lots of quotations and it felt as if she were showing off about all the things she's learned and what qualifications she has. I understand why. She has been so downtrodden that she wants to prove to the world she really is worth something.
It was sad to read of her period of depression, but she came out of it in the end. Yes, she's damaged. Your childhood sets a certain standard for the rest of your life and it's almost impossible to cast that aside and stride forward without looking back. I hope, for her sake, that in writing this book she has exorcised her demons. Perhaps she'll be happier from now on. Didn't much enjoy the book though, I'm afraid.
Mary Whitham is gripped
I have never read anything by Jeanette Winterson before, but have heard people speak about her and her work and I was glad of the opportunity to read Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. I was only half way down the first page when I knew that this book was going to be something quite different from anything else that I had ever read before. I found the book gripping, a real page turner. Jeanette Winterson takes us through her extraordinary life with her adoptive mother and father without any trace of self pity. Her strength of character, forged by a cold, troubled and hard home life is astounding. Her often amusing and incisive style of writing makes this book a compelling and emotional journey for the reader. Thoroughly recommended.
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