Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?/Jeanette Winterson: Reflections

Sunday, June 10, 2012

People I respect and love were insisting:  Read Jeanette Winterson's memoir.  Tell me if you like it.  

There was rarely a why attached to the insistence.  There was only the fervor that arises from people who spend the bulk of their professional and personal time hunting for books that are extraordinary.  We all read a lot, but how often do we find that book that keeps burning bright, days later?  That book that we must share?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is, in fact, that kind of book.  It's the story, at first, of Mrs. Winterson, Jeanette's apocalyptic, domineering, supremely lonely and lonesome-making adoptive mother.  Mrs. Winterson is a big woman among small people in a north England industrial town. She is a death dreamer and Bible reader, a fearless deliverer of obscenely unkind punishments, a practiced hypocrite. She figures large. She wields not just a metaphoric big stick but an actual revolver.  She sets traps and insists on irreversible consequences.

Jeanette grows up with this.  She finds her way to books.  She's scrappy and wild and falls in love with girls. She makes her way, miraculously, until things fall apart, and love proves elusive.  Late in life—after great success as an artist, after breakdowns big and small—Jeanette sets out to find her birth mother.  Jeanette would like to know what real love is, and if she herself is capable not just of giving it, but receiving it, too.  Her journey won't be binary.  Her discoveries will not be pat.  Any attempt to summarize any of this goes straight up against the honest search of the book.

But.  This is a memoir about becoming a woman.  This is equally a memoir about becoming a writer.  It is episodic, philosophical, bitingly true.  It passes no judgment, finally.  It absolves us all.

One quote, from toward the end, that left me breathless.  I leave the rest for you to discover:

But I wanted to be claimed.

I had styled myself as the Lone Ranger not Lassie.  What I had to understand is that you can be a loner and want to be claimed.  We're back to the complexity of life that isn't this thing or that thing—the boring old binary oppositions—it's both, held in balance.  So simple to write.  So hard to do/be.

And the people I have hurt, the mistakes I have made, the damage to myself and others, wasn't poor judgement; it was the place where love had hardened into loss.


Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

This book sounds amazing, Beth, and that quote is beautiful. I hope I get a chance to read it soon.

Liviania said...

That is a wonderful quote.

I love when books reduce people to, "Read this. Now."

Serena said...

This sounds powerful

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