Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
By Jeanette Winterson
(Grove Press, Hardcover, 9780802120106, 224pp.)
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
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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 belongingfor love, identity, home, and a mother.
Born in Manchester in 1959 and adopted into a firmly religious family, Jeanette Winterson put herself through higher education and studied at Oxford University. She is the author of numerous novels, including Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry, and The Passion. Winterson lives in Gloucestershire, UK.
Visit her website at jeanettewinterson.com
- “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?
A New York Times Editors' Choice
A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week
A Guardian Best Book of 2011
A Telegraph Book of the Year (Memoir)
"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 timesearingly 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, loveand 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] novelsmongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentationevince 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 beNormal? 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 adoptionand 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 canand shouldbe."Bookreporter
"There’s always been something Byronic about Wintersona 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 lastand 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 daringand riskiestexperiments 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