Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

3.5 34
by Jeanette Winterson
     
 

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Jeanette Winterson’s novels have establishing 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…  See more details below

Overview

Jeanette Winterson’s novels have establishing 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
03/01/2014
An acclaimed British novelist, Winterson deftly writes of a rough childhood with her adoptive fundamentalist parents in a dark, industrial town. It's England, the 1960s, and the air is full of social change but not in her family. This is a bold, raw coming-of-age story of a girl who escapes and learns to accept herself and become a successful author. (LJ 11/1/11)
Kathryn Harrison
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit] the rollicking bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson's youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the cleareyed free.
—The New York Times Book Review
Valerie Sayers
The first half of this coming-of-age story is arresting and suspenseful, even though we know perfectly well that Jeanette will remain a lesbian, despite her mother's best efforts, and will become a bestselling and influential writer. Winterson has a wonderfully off-kilter sense of humor about her dark past (Chapter 2's title: "My Advice to Anybody Is: Get Born"), but she is a loopy writer in the structural sense, too, preoccupied with the nonlinear nature of time. She swoops between present and past, between narrative and contemplation, with grace and economy…Winterson is always a pleasure. My advice: Read the memoir…
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
…singular and electric…Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
“What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us?” Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) asks of her relationship with her adoptive mother, questions that haunt this raw memoir to its final pages. Winterson first finds solace in the Accrington Public Library in Lancashire, where she stumbles across T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and begins to cry: “the unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day.” She is asked to leave the library for crying and sits on the steps in “the usual northern gale” to finish the book. The rest is history. Highly improbably for a woman of her class, she gets into Oxford and goes on to have a very successful literary career. But she finds that literature—and literary success—can only fulfill so much in her. There’s another ingredient missing: love. The latter part of the book concerns itself with this quest, in which Winterson learns that the problem is not so much being gay (for which her mother tells her “you’ll be in Hell”) as it is in the complex nature of how to love anyone when one has only known perverse love as a child. This is a highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

A Best Book of the Year:
O, the Oprah Magazine (Favorite Reads)
Barnes & Noble
Amazon
The Guardian
The Telegraph
(Memoir)

—Winner of the Stonewall Award
—A New York Times Editors' Choice
—A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson's] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is."—The New York Times

"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 bandone that, luckily for us, keeps playing on."—O, the Oprah Magazine

"She's one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time—searingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . She explores not only the structure of storytelling byt the interplay of past, present, and future, blending science fiction, realism, and a deep love of literature and history. . . . In Why Be Happy, [Winterson's] emotional life is laid bare. [Her] struggle to first accept and then love herself yields a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson's openness is all the more moving; there's nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind."—A.M. Homes, Elle

"Magnificent . . . What begins as a tragicomic tale of triumph over a soul-destroying childhood becomes something rougher and richer in the later passages. . . . Winterson writes with heartrending precision. . . . Ferociously funny and unfathomably generous, Winterson's exorcism-in-writing is an unforgettable quest for belonging, a tour de force of literature and love."—Vogue

"A memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit], the rollicking bildungsroman . . . that instantly established [Winterson’s] distinctive voice. . . . It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her. . . . To confront Mrs. Winterson head on, in life, in nonfiction, demands courage; to survive requires imagination. . . . But put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds, but by their triumphs.”—New York Times Book Review

“With raw honesty and wit, Winterson reveals how she fought her way to adulthood, finding success, love—and ultimately forgiveness.”—People (4 stars)

"Bold . . . One of the most entertaining and moving memoirs in recent memory . . . A coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, and a celebration of the act of reading . . . A marvelous gift of consolation and wisdom."—The Boston Globe

"Jeanette Winterson's sentences become lodged in the brain for years, like song lyrics. . . . Beautiful . . . Powerful . . . Shockingly revealing . . . Raw and undigested . . . Never has anyone so outsized and exceptional struggled through such remembered pain to discover how intensely ordinary she was meant to be."—Slate

"Riveting . . . Beautifully open . . . Why Be Happy is a meditation on loss, stories, and silences."—Newsday

"[Winterson's] novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. . . . [A] proud and vivid portrait of working-class life . . . This bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, hard-won self-knowledge. . . . You're in the hands of a master builder who has remixed the memoir into a work of terror and beauty."—Bookforum

"Captivating . . . A painful and poignant story of redemption, sexuality, identity, love, loss, and, ultimately, forgiveness."—Huffington Post

"Raw . . . A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Shattering, brilliant . . . There is a sense at the end of this brave, funny, heartbreaking book that Winterson has somehow reconciled herself to the past. Without her adoptive mother, she wonders what she would be—Normal? Uneducated? Heterosexual?—and she doesn't much fancy the prospect. . . . She might have been happy and normal, but she wouldn't have been Jeanette Winterson. Her childhood was ghastly, as bad as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent."—The Sunday Times (UK)

"To read Jeanette Winterson's books is to know the exquisite torment of envying every bloody word she writes on the page. . . . Winterson may be one of the bravest writers of our time."—Huffington Post

"Winterson pulls back the veil on her life as she really lived it and shows us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more painful and more beautiful as well. . . . Searing and candid . . . Winterson holds nothing back. . . . Written with poetic beauty."—Bookpage

"Unconventional, ambitious . . . The experience of reading Why Be Happy is unusually visceral. Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest. . . . The prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty, and vigorous all at once."—Financial Times

"Riveting . . . There's a lot of flinty humor here, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoption—and a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it."—Entertainment Weekly (A-)

"Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording can—and should—be."—Bookreporter

"There’s always been something Byronic about Winterson—a stormily passionate soul bitterly indicting the society that excludes her while feeding on the Romantic drama of that exclusion. . . . Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? restores Winterson to her full power. . . . This is a book that will inspire much underlining."—Salon

"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 Independent (UK)

"As compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's great memoir of friendship. . . . A tribute to the salvation of narrative."—Shelf Awareness

"An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography."—The Guardian (Best Book of 2011)

"[Why Be Happy] very possibly [contains] the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, bone-naked truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. . . . Her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"Moving, honest . . . Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved."—Kirkus Reviews

"[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted."—The Seattle Times

"At last—and essential new book by Jeanette Winterson. She is a natural memoirist. . . . Wry, urgent . . . Pressed on by the need for self-discovery, the prose doesn't miss a beat. . . . Winterson is frank about her own oddness, her fierceness. . . . If the first half of the book has been polished by retelling, the second half is raw, immediate. . . . Gone is the Nabokovian memoir in which the exquisite past is presented under glass, skewered by a pin. This is the age of instant communication, of forthright, unmediated responses. Winterson has her finger to the wind."—Evening Standard (UK)

"Exquisite . . . About survival and triumph but also about deep wounds."—LAMDA Literary Review

"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 When You Could Be Normal?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 Times (UK)

“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.”—Library Journal (starred review)

"Winterson makes the pages sing. . . . A moving, artfully constructed piece of writing that sustains tension until the last sentence."—Sara Wheeler, The Globe and Mail (Favorite Book of the Year)

“Idiosyncratic . . . [Winterson] is intense on the page . . . [with] more charisma than a Pentecostal preacher. . . . A sad story, a funny story, a brave story.”—The Scotsman

"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."—The Australian

"We are shown 'how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness,' and come to respect Winterson's psychological courage and her rage to love."—Sunday Telegraph

"This difficult, spirited, engaging book, with its touching openness and maddening lack of candor, is a resonant affirmation of the power of storytelling to make things better."—The Daily Mail

Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed novelist Winterson (The Battle of the Sun, 2010, etc.) revisits her difficult childhood as an adoptee, chronicling the search for her biological mother. The author ponders her youth and examines how those challenging years changed and shaped her as an adult. Frequently locked out on the doorstep by her abusive, Pentecostal, adoptive mother or often told she was "a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, and a fault to nature," Winterson wondered if she had ever been wanted, by her biological or adoptive mother. The author struggled with the ebb and flow of Mrs. Winterson's love, finding escape from her mood swings in the local public library, where she devoured a wide variety of literature. When her secret stash of books was discovered and burned, Winterson rebelled by claiming she would write her own books one day. At age 16, she was kicked out of the house and forced to live in her car. Books and words brought comfort and led Winterson to Oxford and writing, but she descended into a deep depression when her lover left her. The search for her true identity and her birth mother helped bring her back from the darkness. Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved. A moving, honest look at life as an abused adopted child.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802194756
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
03/06/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
15,791
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

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 hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have any choice.
 
She was alive when my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985. It is semiautobiographical, in that it tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster. The girl leaves home, gets herself to Oxford University, returns home to find her mother has built a broadcast radio and is beaming out the Gospel to the heathen. The mother has a handle – she’s called ‘Kindly Light’.
 
The novel begins: ‘Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.
 
For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school. We always walked. We had no car and no bus money. For me, the average was five miles a day: two miles for the round trip to school; three miles for the round trip to church.
 
Church was every night except Thursdays.
 
I wrote about some of these things in Oranges, and when it was published, my mother sent me a furious note in her immaculate copperplate handwriting demanding a phone call.
 
We hadn’t seen each other for several years. I had left Oxford, was scraping together a life, and had written Oranges young – I was twenty-five when it was published.
 
I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone.
 
I dialled the Accrington code and number as instructed, and there she was – who needs Skype? I could see her through her voice, her form solidifying in front of me as she talked.
 
She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose).
 
She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.
 
But that day she was borne up on the shoulders of her own outrage. She said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.’
 
I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. I am an ambitious writer – I don’t see the point of being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it. 1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir – and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself ?
 
Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house – I’ll explain why later – and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize . . . and be standing in a phone box giving her a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism . . .
 
The pips – more money in the slot – and I’m thinking, as her voice goes in and out like the sea, ‘Why aren’t you proud of me?’
 
The pips – more money in the slot – and I’m locked out and sitting on the doorstep again. It’s really cold and I’ve got a newspaper under my bum and I’m huddled in my duffel coat.
 
A woman comes by and I know her. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like.
 
Inside our house the light is on. Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer . . .
 
We’re still on the phone in our phone boxes. She tells me that my success is from the Devil, keeper of the wrong crib. She confronts me with the fact that I have used my own name in the novel – if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?
 
Why?
 
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers. It was my survival from the very beginning. Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.
 
The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story – of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
 
That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.
 
There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt.
 
It’s why I am a writer – I don’t say ‘decided’ to be, or ‘became’. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs Winterson’s story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.
 
She said, ‘But it’s not true . . .’
 
Truth? This was a woman who explained the flashdash of mice activity in the kitchen as ectoplasm.
 
There was a terraced house in Accrington, in Lancashire – we called those houses two-up twodown: two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs. Three of us lived together in that house for sixteen years. I told my version – faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I told myself as hero like any shipwreck story. It was a shipwreck, and me thrown on the coastline of humankind, and finding it not altogether human, and rarely kind.
 
And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.

From the Hardcover edition.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson's] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is."—The New York Times

"She's one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time—searingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . She explores not only the structure of storytelling byt the interplay of past, present, and future, blending science fiction, realism, and a deep love of literature and history. . . . In Why Be Happy, [Winterson's] emotional life is laid bare. [Her] struggle to first accept and then love herself yields a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson's openness is all the more moving; there's nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind."—A.M. Homes, Elle

"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."—O, the Oprah Magazine

"Magnificent . . . What begins as a tragicomic tale of triumph over a soul-destroying childhood becomes something rougher and richer in the later passages. . . . Winterson writes with heartrending precision. . . . Ferociously funny and unfathomably generous, Winterson's exorcism-in-writing is an unforgettable quest for belonging, a tour de force of literature and love."—Vogue

"A memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit], the rollicking bildungsroman . . . that instantly established [Winterson’s] distinctive voice. . . . It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her. . . . To confront Mrs. Winterson head on, in life, in nonfiction, demands courage; to survive requires imagination. . . . But put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds, but by their triumphs.”—New York Times Book Review

"Jeanette Winterson's sentences become lodged in the brain for years, like song lyrics. . . . Beautiful . . . Powerful . . . Shockingly revealing . . . Raw and undigested . . . Never has anyone so outsized and exceptional struggled through such remembered pain to discover how intensely ordinary she was meant to be."—Slate

"Bold . . . One of the most entertaining and moving memoirs in recent memory . . . A coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, and a celebration of the act of reading . . . A marvelous gift of consolation and wisdom."—The Boston Globe

"Unflinching . . . That Winterson should have survived such a terrible early immersion in darkness at all is a kind of miracle. That she should have emerged, if not unscathed then still a functioning human being and a creative artist, is an even greater accomplishment."—San Francisco Chronicle

“With raw honesty and wit, Winterson reveals how she fought her way to adulthood, finding success, love—and ultimately forgiveness.”—People (4 stars)

"There’s always been something Byronic about Winterson—a stormily passionate soul bitterly indicting the society that excludes her while feeding on the Romantic drama of that exclusion. . . . Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? restores Winterson to her full power. . . . This is a book that will inspire much underlining."—Salon

"[Winterson's] novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. . . . [A] proud and vivid portrait of working-class life . . . This bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, hard-won self-knowledge. . . . You're in the hands of a master builder who has remixed the memoir into a work of terror and beauty."— Bookforum

"Riveting . . . Beautifully open . . . Why Be Happy is a meditation on loss, stories, and silences."—Newsday

"Riveting . . . There's a lot of flinty humor here, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoption—and a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it."—Entertainment Weekly (A-)

"Arresting and suspenseful . . . Offers literary surprises and flashes of magnificent generosity and humor."—The Washington Post Book World

"[Why Be Happy] very possibly [contains] the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, bone-naked truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. . . . Her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"Captivating . . . A painful and poignant story of redemption, sexuality, identity, love, loss, and, ultimately, forgiveness."—Huffington Post

"Raw . . . A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir."—Publishers Weekly

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

"[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted."—The Seattle Times

"Winterson pulls back the veil on her life as she really lived it and shows us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more painful and more beautiful as well. . . . Searing and candid . . . Winterson holds nothing back. . . . Written with poetic beauty."— Bookpage

"Shattering, brilliant . . . There is a sense at the end of this brave, funny, heartbreaking book that Winterson has somehow reconciled herself to the past. Without her adoptive mother, she wonders what she would be—Normal? Uneducated? Heterosexual?—and she doesn't much fancy the prospect. . . . She might have been happy and normal, but she wouldn't have been Jeanette Winterson. Her childhood was ghastly, as bad as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent."—The Sunday Times (UK)

"Unconventional, ambitious . . . The experience of reading Why Be Happy is unusually visceral. Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest. . . . The prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty, and vigorous all at once."—Financial Times

"An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography."— The Guardian (Best Book of 2011)

"Searing . . . Winterson's truth is just as compelling as any fiction."—Entertainment Weekly (The Must List)

"Moving, honest . . . Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved."—Kirkus Reviews

"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 Independent (UK)

"Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording can—and should—be."—Bookreporter

"Exquisite . . . About survival and triumph but also about deep wounds."—LAMDA Literary Review

"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 Times (UK)

"As compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's great memoir of friendship. . . . A tribute to the salvation of narrative."—Shelf Awareness

"At last—and essential new book by Jeanette Winterson. She is a natural memoirist. . . . Wry, urgent . . . Pressed on by the need for self-discovery, the prose doesn't miss a beat. . . . Winterson is frank about her own oddness, her fierceness. . . . If the first half of the book has been polished by retelling, the second half is raw, immediate. . . . Gone is the Nabokovian memoir in which the exquisite past is presented under glass, skewered by a pin. This is the age of instant communication, of forthright, unmediated responses. Winterson has her finger to the wind."—Evening Standard (UK)

“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.”—Library Journal

"As beautifully crafted as any of Winterson's fiction."—Foreword

"Winterson makes the pages sing. . . . A moving, artfully constructed piece of writing that sustains tension until the last sentence."—The Globe and Mail (Favorite Book of the Year)

“Idiosyncratic . . . [Winterson] is intense on the page . . . [with] more charisma than a Pentecostal preacher. . . . A sad story, a funny story, a brave story.”—The Scotsman

"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."—The Australian

"We are shown 'how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness,' and come to respect Winterson's psychological courage and her rage to love."— Sunday Telegraph

"This difficult, spirited, engaging book, with its touching openness and maddening lack of candor, is a resonant affirmation of the power of storytelling to make things better."—The Daily Mail

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Meet the Author

Born in Manchester in 1959 and adopted into a family of Pentecostal evangelists, Jeanette Winterson studied at Oxford University. Her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was selected by Michael Cunningham as one of the Good Men Project’s Best LGBT Books of All Time. Her other books include Sexing the Cherry and The Passion. Jeanette has won several prizes including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize, and the E. M. Forster Award.

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Some aspects of this raw, and beautifully written memoir are devastating: an adoptive mother who is a religious fanatic who cannot receive, or give, love, and an adoptive father too sidelined to do much to counterbalance this formidable force. But this memoir is not concerned with the chronological recounting of horrors made all the more grim by their every day occurrence. Instead, representative details and key moments are revealed so that the author might spend most of her time reflecting on how she forged her identity, and made herself whole in the absence of her adoptive mother's love, and in this aspect, this work--and the spirit behind it--are luminous and triumphant. Fascinating exploration of the tension between Winterson's fury at being landed in her adoptive family, but also being glad, in a way, because that was what she had, and from what she fled to make herself whole. Moving meditation on love--how actually it can be hard to love, and be loved, if you have been mothered in a way that is wanting, and how deeply each of us need to feel we belong, and see our true selves reflected lovingly back to us in our mother's eyes. Relatively short book, but intense, with some absolutely stunning, gorgeous prose.
AMedel More than 1 year ago
Boring, too much 'fluff', not enough stories of her life as a memoir should have. I make it a rule to not make up my mind about a book until after I have read the first 100 pages. Getting through the first 100 pages (and the subsequent 67) was tedious and aggrivating. I truly enjoy reading memoirs, learning about other people's lives through their own self reflection and experience. Ms. Winterson, however, spent a vast majority of her book quoting the works of other great authors and poets rather than telling her own story. Her continuous and superfluous references to other masters in the craft of writing was aggrivating. Had I wanted to read Elliot or Stein, I would have purchased one of THEIR books and not hers. She ruined the truly remarkable tale of her survival in an abusive home and her accomplishments by not being genuine and using other writers to tell you how she felt. Toward the beginning of the book, it felt as though she were writing a sales pitch for her other works (namely Oranges are Not The Only Fruit), which I may very well have purchased had she not outlined the entire novel while trying to sell it in her memoir.
JadeWant More than 1 year ago
This is quite a memoir! It is more of the author’s explanation of how she dealt with her terrifying life that influenced her growing up. She was adopted by a woman obsessed with religion and most certainly mentally ill. She grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s among the hard-working poor. Looking back over thirty, forty years, she seems to have miraculously found some forgiveness for the woman apparently incapable of love. She relives brief insightful moments of her childhood. She reveals how she could not love anyone, or even befriend a classmate, despite desperately needing someone. She couldn’t allow love in…numb to it. It's a book for those who struggle with belonging and fear closeness especially after abuse. I am sure writing this book was cathartic for her. I hope it helped her. This is not one I would care to reread but I am glad for the experience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jeanette Winterson has some wonderful sentences, but not enough to sustain a book-length work. This memoir needs organization and a good editor.
Reneethewriter More than 1 year ago
I am almost finished reading this book, and I have yet to reach the fascinating part of the story. Jeanette Winterson is a good writer, no doubt, but this memoir just plods along. Her references to her other books within the text also gets to be quite annoying. We get it, you've written other books. That doesn't make this one any more entertaining.
debvanz More than 1 year ago
I read this book for my book club, but was seriously disappointed in it. With only a few bright spots, it was an extremely long bout of "oh poor pitiful me." In the author's defense, she did have a very rotten childhood. Her adopted mother was abusive, often locking her (as a young child) outside on the front porch or in a coal bin. However, although Winterson claims to have found happiness, it doesn't really show up in this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I now want to read all her books. Very hard to put this book down. A must read for every young woman Searching for her life not someone elses life
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an edgy, sharply honest story, (worts and all )  filled with insight and understanding. If Winterson had not decided that she was the mistress of her own ship, her story could have turned out very differently. Winterson's memoir is an emphatic reminder that no matter what, each of us CAN earn our own autonomy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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dave61 More than 1 year ago
The book was a quick easy read while not as straight forward and tear jerking as some memoirs it was an interesting blend of her story and relevant literary works of others. Those wee appropriate considering the impact literature had on Jeanette's life and it's positive outcome. This book was the first of hers I read and I will read another. Yes there are more gut wrenching stories out there but this one is heartfelt and well done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was hoping for more from this book. I was disappointed. There were few parts that i actually enjoyed. My favorite part was when it was over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best I've read in years. She has a beautiful way of exploring complex concepts, I read several pages aloud to student groups.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author bares her soul looking at how she grew up and possible reasons for her unique perspective on life. Knowledge of literature really adds to the story. Very well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For those of you who appreciate the ebbs and flows of Winterson's work, this is the book for you. Fragmented thoughts, moments of joy and fear, this is what makes Winterson the writer and the woman that she is. I adored this book and only wish that she had embraced more of her life than she did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More of a disfunctional family than a story of a gay person.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Jeanette Winterson wrote a critically acclaimed novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, loosely based on her life growing up in a Northern England industrial town. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is the non-fiction version of that story. The looming figure in both books is Winterson's adopted mother, who is always referred to in the book as Mrs. Winterson. Her parents were Pentecostal and her mother raised Jeanette to become a missionary.  Mrs. Winterson was abusive, frequently locking Jeanette out of the house overnight, leaving her to freeze on the porch steps. During those long nights, it was books that saved young Jeanette. That was where she fell in love with language and books, and where she found truth, beauty and security in her lonely existence. Books saved her sanity and her life. Mrs. Winterson spent much of her time at church meetings, and was always angry and disappointed in Jeanette. At the age of sixteen, Jeanette told her mother that she was in love with a woman and Mrs. Winterson uttered the phrase that became the book's title, "Why be happy when you can be normal?". The fact that she was adopted affected her as well. Her mother wanted a boy and she finds some papers in her mother's things that confuse her. As expected, the confrontation with Mrs. Winterson about this does not go well. Jeanette decided to try and find her birth mother and that journey is interesting. She searches long and hard and eventually finds her mother, although her own reaction to meeting her mother is much more complicated than she imagines. Winterson's memoir, with its poetic language, gives hope to people who feel that they are different from everyone else around them, that life is too difficult. It can help them to find their own voice as she found hers. One of the passages I marked is this one:"A tough life needs a tough language- and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is a beautiful finding place for those who feel lost too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wanted this book to speak to me... wanted to feel something! But instead i just could not wait to be done with it. This book is only 167 pages long and got good about page 150 and got boring again around page 160!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved reading this book, as much of it is relatable to my own life. Very brave of Ms. W to put this story out there in the world so that those of us who can relate may feel less alone in our experiences in the world.