Book Review: "Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?" by Jeanette Winterson

Monday, June 10, 2013

“I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. 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.” 
Writers like Jeanette Winterson understand that reading, or poetry, is more than just something to do. It's a coping mechanism, an escape, a way to distract yourself from the unpleasantries of daily life. In Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? Winterson explores her difficult childhood.

Winterson was adopted by a mother who banned most books, saying, "you never know what's in [them] until it's too late," and who, learning of Winterson's sexual orientation, asked, "Why be happy when you can be normal?"

The memoir touches on the difficulty of living in a family where even your deepest sense of self is rejected. Her adoptive mother, cutting and often sadistic, caused Winterson to be isolated. When she falls in love with a local girl, she becomes even colder to her adoptive daughter and the relationship between them is further strained.

For those adults actively seeking their birth families, organizations like the American Adoption Congress offer support and advocate on their behalf. Unfortunately for Winterson, that resource was not available to her. Years after the death of her adoptive mother, Winterson goes on a quest to find her birth mother. Although her childhood was documented in a previous memoir, OrangesAre Not the Only Fruit, this is the first memoir to explore Winterson’s decision to find her birth mother, the long and stressful process of actually doing so, and their eventual meeting.

The memoir, while well-written and emotional, fell flat for me. Most likely, it was because I can’t identify with the adoptive process. There were moments when I was truly touched, or empathized with her feelings of isolation, but overall I felt like I was always an arms-length away from truly understanding. But that is my failing, and not Winterson’s.

The verdict: worth the read, but not a favorite.