Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

why-Be-Happy1-156x240Book club went with a non-fiction this month, and a memoir to boot! Jeannette Winterson is the author of many books, but her Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – the story of a young girl adopted by a Pentacostal family – is an international best seller and televised series. Oranges was previously thought to be semi-auto biographical. Why Be Happy is her official memoir and a chronicle of her quest for happiness.

Laura: I identified with this book because my mother became a right wing religious fanatic, although it was after I was raised in a left wing, Kennedy supporting family. Another reason I identified with this book it because I felt like an adopted child projected into my mother’s new norm. With this book I felt like Winterson was going into what family is, that it is not traditional, it is about the values and her story told what it was to suddenly not be a part of a family. Reading the book was almost like déjà vu, especially since it was in England and my parents were in England when my mother became so religious. Rate: 4 stars only because I don’t think this author is fully resolved. It is not complete.

Cindy: I think what made a difference for me was listening to this story. Winterson reads it herself. It was personal, you heard her. The jokes were funny. But it had to do with the way she would say it. I’m not sure if I read those things they would come across the same. That was why I liked the revelation of her story. The part that stuck with me the most—when she realized that she had been to therapist and realized that she had to come to a reckoning with “the other”, the switch to the other, the child who ruined her. This was a really interesting self care approach, in the face of nothing else helping her. She had to heal her own wounds and she came up with it herself. Two things I remembered and liked: One) if you don’t know what love is, you’re always trying to it figure out and two) that books saved her, she had a library and she had a mind that could take advantage of it. In her mind it made sense that one had to read them alphabetically and that said something about her. I’m hoping she writes another book, the end of her story or another novel. Rate: story 4.8, writing 3.9.

Lynne: Early in the story I found some remarks that were very inspirational and then there were moments when I said enough of this. If this was fiction that would be different but the fact that she was writing a biographical story, well…the way I grew up we were taught don’t talk about those kinds of things, and so the “don’t talk about it” value is in me and I kept asking myself “why is she talking about it?” So I liked it and I didn’t like it. Rate 2.5

Robin: As I always say, I’m not much of a non-fiction person. I struggled immediately when reading this book. I think my problem is that memoir feel so slow and they take off in so many directions as the author passes along information which, contrary to a novel, does not move the story forward, but instead educates the reader about something that is important to the author. My problem is that I truly have trouble absorbing or understanding or even paying attention to what is NOT important to me. I did like Winterson’s early description of the nature of adoption-specifically in her conflict with her adoptive mother – from an adopted woman’s perspective. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers.” But I struggled through a lot of the book.

Winterson made me a bit angry with her “blame the mother” attitude. Not that I didn’t see that her mother was mentally ill and made her suffer, but there were hints of the good. Someone gave her a cowboy suit and so I felt that there had to be at least a few good things once in a while, but they were never mentioned. In addition to that, Winterson is a very successful, published writer WITH A TELEVISION SERIES! I guess pure jealousy makes me scream out “Quit your bellyaching!”

The book started to catch my interest about three quarters of the way through, and I am glad I finished the whole thing. I rated it a 1 star until after hearing Connie’s explanation (see below). That helped me see the meaning of some of the what I call boring parts. But the author should have done this for me, not my book club friends. So I am still giving it a rating of 1 star.


I did not like the book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal,  by Jeanette Winterson.  The writing was lengthy and confused and inconsequential narrative in other words more like rambling with a bit of nonsense thrown in for good measure.  It amazes me that she has written several other books.  I love a good biography, I hate a bad one.  This is a bad one.  Rating –   less than 1.

Connie: When I finished reading this book I found myself wondering whether I would like Jeanette Winterson or not. As I read the first third of the book, I didn’t like it very much, and because it was a memoir of sorts, I wonder if I wasn’t liking the book because I didn’t really like her. As the book continued, and she went off to Cambridge and then on a search for her birth mother, I began to like it, and her, better. And after I finished the final page, I found myself going to YouTube to watch a couple of interviews of the author…still wondering if I would like her or not. I decided I did.

Literature, for me, isn’t all about pleasure or even if I’d recommend it to someone else. I sometimes have to struggle to get through a book, but the value is the experience as a whole—often not even discernible until the end. The least favorite part of the book for me was all the memories that returned to “Winterson World.” I’m not drawn to dysfunctional family memoirs, and every time she returned to Mrs. Winterson, I would wish that, after a previous book and a BBC tv series, she would have given it a break. Mrs. Winterson so obviously suffered from mental illness, I often felt myself more outraged with her father, who was painted as a fellow victim. And I could help but feel that such a self-promoting memoir can be somewhat of a cheap shot…with one not able to step up and tell their side of the story. There was something about Winterson’s account that often made me feel I wasn’t hearing the whole story. I also found myself wondering if her inability to love fully was not only because she felt unwanted, but because she had chosen and adult life of self-absorption—albeit a for of protection for her. Not to go all Mother Theresa, but in my experience I’ve found that it’s through giving to other that one feels love most deeply. Rate: 4.

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