Summary and book reviews of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

By Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2012,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2013,
    240 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Book Summary

Jeanette Winterson's novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life's work to find happiness. It's a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin.

It is the story of how a painful past that Jeanette thought she'd written over and repainted rose to haunt her, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother.

Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging, for love, identity, home, and a mother.

1
The Wrong Crib

When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, 'The Devil led us to the wrong crib'.

The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960 - purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson - has a flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.   A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth - matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for 'best'.

I do not know why she didn't/couldn't have children. I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world - a way of saying that she was here - a kind of X Marks the Spot.

She ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. "My mother tried to throw me clear of her own wreckage and I landed in a place as unlikely as any she could have imagined for me" (p. 225). How does Jeanette become reconciled to her birth story and adoption?

  2. "It took me a long time to realise that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don't want to go. You look where you don't want to look" (p. 54). How is Jeanette's life reflected in "you go where you don't want to go"?

  3. Does Jeanette love her captor/tormentor who is her mother? In many ways Mrs Winterson is the powerful center of the book. Do you agree?

  4. "Mrs Winterson was too big for...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

The essence of Winterson's own tenuous life-story is mimicked in the structure of her memoir, a jumble of hazy pieces coalescing into a mind, a self. What felt unformed and gangly in the first half becomes svelt and athletic; what was meandering becomes as sure and steady as a freight train.... Winterson offers a reader much more than the satisfaction of voyeuristic curiosity that marks so many train-wreck memoirs; this is a memoir about how we deal with our lot in life. Not how we can endure it, but how we might meet it, how we begin a dialogue with it, how we become who we are when we are done being our past.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
Louisa Ermelino, O, the Oprah Magazine

To read Jeanette Winterson is to love her.... The fierce, curious, brilliant British writer is winningly candid in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?... [Winterson has] such a joy for life and love and language that she quickly becomes her very own one-woman band - one that, luckily for us, keeps playing on.

Donna Seaman, Booklist

Starred Review. Clarion, courageous, and vividly expressive, Winterson conducts a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self and liberating power of literature.

Library Journal, Therese Purcell Nielsen

Starred Review. Provides a vivid picture of the grotesque behaviors of the lunatic mother she refers to as 'Mrs. Winterson.' This is a detailed portrait of a life that saved itself. The hard work Winterson did to find her place in the world after growing up as an outsider's outsider is not exaggerated. We are lucky she survived to tell the tale.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Raw... A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir.

The Independent, Arifa Akbar

Compelling, in fact, perhaps even more so when compared to the fictionalized version written by Winterson as a twenty-five-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page. ...Now comes [an] emotional excavation as a fifty-two-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye. ...The specifics of [Winterson's] early abuse are vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for their familiarity. ...If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her.

The Guardian - Zoe Williams

There is much here that's impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one's sympathy, for everyone involved, so that the characters who are demons at the start - her adoptive mother but also, to a degree, her acquiescent adoptive father - emerge, by the end, as simply, catastrophically damaged. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they wreaked on her. The peace she makes with her adoptive family is, in this sense, more important and evocative than the more complicated and double-edged peace that comes with tracking down her birth mother.

The Times (UK) - John Burnside

Winterson's memoir is a brave and searingly honest account of how she reclaimed her childhood through the power of language... Rich in autobiographical detail, it is as wide and bold an experiment in the memoir form as any so far written. Indeed, one of the most daring - and riskiest - experiments this book pulls off is a sudden fast-forward from the world of the lonely, adopted child that we think we know from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, to the recent present where, in writing that is astonishingly naked and brave, Winterson reveals the legacy of that difficult childhood... Why Be Happy is proudly, and sometimes painfully honest. It is also, arguably, the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years, and, as such, it really should not be missed.

The Australian - Geordie Williamson

This is no narrative of victimhood, but one of gratitude. In its lugubrious humor, its striving to find virtue in unlikely places and in its willingness to try to understand the forces that damaged her mother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? recalls a feminine version of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. ...Winterson lends all [her] fierce poetry, intelligence, and epigrammatic punch to [the] prose... Thrilling as the author may be in the denunciation of her mother, the tale as a whole foregrounds the woman's vulnerability; empathy keeps breaking through.

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What a Way To Go

In a passage on suicide, Winterson remarks that "when natural gas was introduced in the 1960's, the British suicide rate fell by one-third." I thought that perhaps she was using some creative math for dramatic effect, but a little research revealed that she wasn't exaggerating at all. Here's a summary of the way things were in Great Britain before the introduction of natural gas, from the New York Times:

For generations, the people of Britain heated their homes and fueled their stoves with coal gas. While plentiful and cheap, coal-derived gas could also be deadly; in its unburned form, it released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This ...

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