Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson

I loved Winterson’s first, semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit when I first read it as a teenager. Her slightly fictionalized Jeanette struggles through her religious upbringing with her crazy adoptive mother and a difficult coming-out experience. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is partially the memoir version of the same story, up until the point where Winterson jumps ahead twenty-five years to when she began to search for her birth mother.

I felt some worry through the first part as, even with a memoir perspective rooted in Winterson’s career as a writer, it reminded me so much of Oranges that nothing really felt new, even though it’s been many years now since I last read the novel and there are more stories here I knew logically I hadn’t read before. In a way that successfully showed the overriding truth of the novel. But the second part is compelling — it came across far more revealing and vulnerable. Winterson talks about her breakdown after a long-term relationship ended and how she began her search almost on a whim and how overwhelming navigating the legalities of closed adoptions is (at the time she was adopted, these were the only option). In the end the book affected me more than I expected it to, and reading it felt remarkably timely.

The BBC’s Imagine did a show on Winterson that roughly follows the arc of the book called “My Monster and Me.”