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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson


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Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (3/5/2012)
Compact Disc (3/12/2013)
MP3 CD (11/25/2014)

March 2012 Indie Next List

“Readers familiar with Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit will have an inkling of the earnestness and pathos as well as the source of this most perfectly chosen title quote, but no one should stop there: this memoir delivers far more than the expected exploration of that story's roots. This is a captivating book, quotable, and brightly flecked with humor, a personal and, at times, painfully raw story about an adoptee's lifelong search for love. It also makes the strongest case I've ever read for how a life can be saved by literature.”
— Jennifer Indeliclae, Ebenezer Books, Johnson, VT
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Magnificent . . . A tour de force of literature and love.--Vogue

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

Winterson is] 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. . . . In Why Be Happy, , Winterson's] emotional life is laid bare . . . in] 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.--Elle

Jeanette Winterson's bold and revelatory novels have earned her widespread acclaim, 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 best-selling 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 classes.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life's work to find happiness. It is 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 a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about other people's literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.

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.

Praise For Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

"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."Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"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

"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."Louisa Ermelino, 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."Megan O'Grady, 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.”Kathryn Harrison, 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."June Thomas, 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."Carmela Ciuraru, 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."Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

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

"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."Laura Miller, Salon

"[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."Parul Sehgal, 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 adoptionand a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it."Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly (A-)

"Arresting and suspenseful . . . Offers literary surprises and flashes of magnificent generosity and humor."Valerie Sayers, 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."Nicola Griffith, 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 (starred review)

"Clarion, courageous, and vividly expressive, Winterson conducts a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self and liberating power of literature."Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)

"[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted."Ellen Heltzel, 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."Stephanie Harrison, 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 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."Daisy Goodwin, 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."Emily Stokes, Financial Times

"An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography."Mark Lawson, 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."Arifa Akbar, The Independent (UK)

"Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording canand shouldbe."Norah Piehl, 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 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 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."John Burnside, The Times (UK)

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

"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."Hermione Eyre, 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.”Therese Purcell Nielsen, Library Journal (starred review)

"As beautifully crafted as any of Winterson's fiction."Heather Seggel, Foreword

"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.”Chitra Ramaswamy, 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."Geordie Williamson, 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."Sheena Joughin, 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."Jane Shilling, The Daily Mail

"Read this as an investigation into the creation of an authora twentieth-century Lancashire David Copperfield. Read it because it's a memoir of striking honesty, realism, and wit. Read it because it is also the Romance of a life in pursuit of love."Gabrielle Malcolm, PopMatters blog

Grove Press, 9780802120878, 240pp.

Publication Date: March 12, 2013

About the Author

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

Conversation Starters from

1. “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?

2. “It took me a long time to realise that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look” (p. 54). How is Jeanette’s life reflected in “you go where you don’t want to go”?

3. Does Jeanette love her captor/tormentor who is her mother? In many ways Mrs Winterson is the powerful center of the book. Do you agree?

4. “Mrs Winterson was too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full three hundred feet, and towering over us” (p. 35). Lillian, Mr Winterson’s second wife, declared Jeanette’s mother, Connie, certifiably mad, with her Royal Albert collecting and displaying, her apocalyptic religion, and the beatings and locking up her daughter in the coal-hole. How does Jeanette deal with this likelihood of a crazy mother?

5. “She’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, and a fault to nature” (p. 29) is a refrain launched against Jeanette from her earliest memory, in the spirit of her being taken from “the wrong crib.” The Hamlet lines are words Mrs Winterson levels equally at the faulty gas oven given to explosion. If “that is a heavy load for a gas oven to bear,” what is it for a child (p. 29)? How does Jeanette’s irony, her ear for cant, save her—as well as provide marvelous material for her writing? (“I was writing the past and discovering the future” (p. 226)).

6. Instead of cringing under her parents’ abuse, Jeanette stiffens, develops a carapace and a sense of humor. She secretly reads books she sneaks into the house and hides under her mattress. Mrs Winterson thought “the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late” (p. 33). The exception was the Bible, read out loud. What did the King James language give to Jeanette and to many others?

7. What are the results of Mrs Winterson’s cataclysmic book burning (pp. 40-41)? Think about the child in her nightgown, clutching at volumes before they go up in flames. “I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. And books have always been light and warmth to me” (p. 41). The next day she collected some scraps, “burnt jigsaws of books.” Now, as an established writer, Jeanette says, “It is probably why I write as I do—collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative. What does Eliot say? These fragments have I shored against my ruin . . .” (p. 41).

8. In the aftermath of the book purging, what does Jeanette understand about herself? She is on her own emotionally and intellectually, but does she begin to see that as a strength? “I had lines inside me—a string of guiding lights. I had language” (p. 42). “And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. ‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own’” (p. 43).

9. How does Jeanette relate her own reactions to violence, and some she is subjected to, in the context of a generalized brutality in working class northern England? Think of the ramifications of generations of poverty, lack of education, and angry frustration. About her own beatings, she says, “I didn’t respect them for it. I didn’t fear it after a while. It did not modify my behaviour. It did make me hate them—not all the time—but with the hatred of the helpless; a flaring, subsiding hatred that gradually became the bed of the relationship” (p. 45). As Jeanette thinks back on her own violence, she recalls with ominous chill, “Kids were slapped most days. . . . Kids fought all the time. . . . I used to hit my girlfriends until I realised it was not acceptable. . . . Even now, when I am furious, what I would like to do is punch the infuriating person flat on the ground” (p. 46).

10. Literature—A to Z—gives the growing child a lifeline. How does Jack and the Beanstalk provide myths she can latch onto? Not only the fairy tales and comic strips about triumphant underdogs appeal to her, but why were quest stories so important? “The stories of Arthur, of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Merlin, of Camelot and the Grail, docked into me like the missing molecule of a chemical compound. I have gone on working with the Grail stories all my life. They are stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition, of second chances” (p. 37).

11. Growing up in the best circumstances is hard, and Jeanette had a lion’s portion of challenges. “I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels” (p. 39). Why does the following passage from Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot resonate strongly with the author? “This is one moment, / but know that another / shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy” (p. 39) “The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family—the first one was not my fault but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely not my fault. . . . I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me. . . . 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” (pp. 39-40). Does Jeanette’s own language reflect the toughness she seeks in her own reading? Does she spare herself?

12. The Pentecostal obsessions of Jeanette’s parents assure her of a most unusual childhood that is often very funny in the retelling. About her mother and father, “both smoked before they found Jesus” (p. 19). And despite battering religion around the clock, Jeanette says, “I was excited about the apocalypse because Mrs Winterson made it exciting, but I secretly hoped that life would go on until I could be grown up and find out more about it. The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection” (p. 23). Explain how Jeanette rolls us into both the calamity of her life and the joke of her own response. What other writers operate this way? Kundera? Beckett? Shakespeare?

13. What are incidents you remember that sharpened Jeanette’s interest in the role of women and their being recognized? “The school song at Accrington High School for Girls was ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, a terrible choice for an all-girls’ school, but one that helped turn me into a feminist” (p. 98). Who are some of the compelling women she writes about in the memoir? For instance, there was the cello teacher, “one of those electrical trapped women of a particular generation who are half mad because they are trapped, and half genius because they are trapped. She wanted her girls to know about music—to sing it, to play it, and to make no compromises” (p. 98). Remember, too, her perplexity and growing anger at finding almost no women on the library shelves.

14. Stories—an oral tradition—were alive in Jeanette’s often bleak midwinter world. “For the people I knew, books were few and stories were everywhere, and how you tell ‘em was everything (p. 30). “My mother told stories—of their life in the war and how she’d played the accordion in the air-raid shelter and it had got rid of the rats. Apparently rats like violins and pianos but they can’t stand the accordion . . .” (p. 31). Mrs Winterson desperately tried to limit Jeanette’s exposure to literature, but consider how her own affinity for storytelling contributed to Jeanette’s talent for narrative.

15. “Soon after that time I began to go mad” (p. 161). Thus Jeanette begins an account of a depression that immobilized her. It is a harrowing tale. How does madness intersect with the quest and her writing? “The psyche is much smarter than consciousness allows. We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury” (p. 162). Did therapy help her? What was her attitude toward medication? “I was thinking about suicide because it had to be an option. . . . It gave me back a sense of control. . . . On bad days I just held onto the thinning rope. The rope was poetry. All that poetry I learned when I had to keep my library inside me now offered a rescue rope” (pp. 162-163).

16. What are the other life lines Jeanette clings to in her despair? The bottoming out is dramatic: “But often I could not talk. Language left me. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place” (p. 163). A love affair has failed, and she feels she will always be seeking home. But she has a persistent drive for life and the creativity that has gone underground. And more. “The countryside, the natural world, my cats, and English Literature A – Z were what I could lean on and hold onto. My friends [such as Ruth Rendell] never failed me and when I could talk, I did talk to them (p. 163).

17. Talk about the quest for Jeanette’s birth mother. “I have opened a door into a room with furniture I don’t recognise. There is a past after all, no matter how much I have written over it” (p. 160). What are Jeanette’s reactions to her discovery in a Long John Silver treasure box after Lillian dies? What does she think of her blood mother and family? Are you surprised by her thoughts? For instance, “I am interested in nature/nurture. I notice that I hate Ann criticising Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster” (p. 229).