We asked our LighterLifers on Facebook and Twitter to read a book for us and share their thoughts. This month they read Jeanette Winterson’s Why be happy when you could be normal? Here’s what they said…
This book follows on from Winterson’s earlier autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, focusing on her troubled upbringing in a terraced house in Accrington and the difficult relationship she shared with her strict mother, who looms large in her thoughts and fears.
Thomas Huscroft, Stoke on Trent
While I haven’t read Winterson’s most famous novel, Oranges are not the only fruit, I was still really keen to read this one as I had heard great things about it. Why be happy when you can be normal focuses on a young adopted girl’s upbringing in a northern town. The way she’s brought up seems almost Victorian – their lives revolve around church, and the attitudes are quite old fashioned.
The book moves between offering doses of humour and a more gritty sense of reality. The writer secretly rebels against her adopted mother’s dislike of all books that are non-bible related, realises her own attraction to other women, and eventually tracks down her birth mother.
The way it’s written appeals to all the senses – I could almost smell the fire, taste the soup and hear her cries. It’s a moving story that really gives you a strong sense of what it was like to live in the post-war community of Accrington.
Antonia McCulloch, Ayrshire
This is a really heartfelt book and I was really moved by Winterson’s suffering. Cruelty was all she knew from her adopted mother, and her father seemed to turn a blind eye to what went on. The book is really about her search for love and a ‘normal’ family life.
When she meets Janey – the woman she loves – she feels a happiness she has never felt before. Eventually, when she tracks down her birth mother, it’s really emotional. To me, Winterson seems like a born fighter. She manages to make light out of any situation she finds herself in and doesn’t allow herself to be ground down. My heart really goes out to her after reading this.
Hannah Diiorio, West Sussex
This book is a slow starter, but once you’ve invested some time in it, you’ll be hooked! The story is about the author’s dysfunctional childhood, the madness of her adopted mother and her own breakdown. It’s really about her journey towards finding love and feeling like she belongs. It’s witty, honest and deeply emotional – I was happy, sad and horrified in equal measure while reading this. I can honestly say it’s a brilliant read and would highly recommend it.
Catherine Killen, Bedford
Jeanette Winterson tackles so many issues in this autobiography but I think the main theme that stands out to me is survival. As a child she came up with ways to face situations that would be terrifying to most adults – being locked in the coal hole overnight, left outside on the doorstep into the early hours and waiting for the Apocalypse.
I expected this to be a heartstring tugging, tear jerker, but I was wrong. There are many of the classic elements here- a horrific childhood, a difficult adolescent, Winterson’s descent into madness and her slow climb back out but this is not a book that encourages an outpouring of reader emotion. In a way it was almost like the author was looking through a window, and certainly she has ways of distancing herself from many of the more difficult issues; her adoptive mother is referred to throughout as Mrs Winterson with only a couple of exceptions whilst her father (whose only real fault was to ignore the behaviour of her mother) is given the title of Dad.
I found this to be quite a hard read, possibly due to the fact that since I had my children, I have mostly dipped in and out of chick lit, and one of what I felt was Winterson’s distancing techniques was to refer back to classical literature and various theories throughout the book and some of the references went over my head a bit.
I did, however, enjoy the honesty of the book- dealing with the madness and the bureaucratic search for her birth mother both gave you a glimpse of the battles that many people face as adults and Winterson’s lack of self-pity and ability to retain some humour in these situations is impressive. I felt she was brave to vocalise how meeting her birth mother made her wary and confused and the fact that Mrs Winterson ‘was a monster, but she was my monster’. I admired the fact that after everything Winterson has dealt with she still faces life with great positivity and a real belief in the possibility of love.