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As a readers’ advisory librarian, I normally don’t push books I’ve read onto others who might not share my reading interests and preferences. Normally. But, I’m not immune to book evangelism—the need to convince others that the book that has changed your life will undoubtedly change theirs, too. Right now, I want to put a copy of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson into everyone’s hands. This new memoir by the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is the story of Winterson’s unusual childhood, tortured coming-of-age, and search for her birth mother. More broadly, it is the story of loss and love—issues that appear in some fashion in each of her novels. Written on the Body begins with the memorable first line “Why is the measure of love loss?”
The memoir explores identity, family, and adoption, but the real reason I want to give a copy to everyone I know is because of its emphasis on the importance of fiction in our lives. Anyone whose life has been changed or saved because of a novel will love this memoir. Winterson’s own life was greatly impacted by her home town library in Accrington, England. Although forbidden by her mother to read anything other than nonfiction, Winterson would sneak fiction into her room and hide paperbacks under her mattress. She loves the section in her library called “Fiction A to Z” and decides to read everything in that order. Through her horrific childhood, literature becomes a lifeline. She writes,
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 and stupid things 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. (40)
Of course, it would be one of Winterson’s novels that would become a “finding place” for me. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is one of a handful of books that I consider life changing. Whether it found me or I found it, the book is one that opened the door to a different reality and gave me language strong enough to “say how it is.” Stories really do connect us over time and distance, and Winterson’s memoir is a story worth reading and repeating for what it teaches about love, loss, and resilience.