If Oranges was Winterson’s thinly veiled memoir, then Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is where she goes all the way to reclaim that painful fictional past in Oranges. In each of these books I love how she combines fiction and memoir. I don’t recall reading another book that blurs that line as impressively. Another impressive thing about these books is that they don’t follow a linear timeline, she jumps back and forth without warning but that doesn’t bother me because she does that really well. At its core, this book is an exploration of belonging and happiness.
The first half of the book is about Winterson’s childhood. She is constantly at odds with her adoptive mother, their struggle stems from a failure to understand each other which makes for a categorical lack of love and belonging. She grows up in thae small town of Accrington outside Manchester. I loved reading about this setting, partly because I haven’t read much about the UK’s working class life circa 1970s and partly Winterson describes it beautifully- even when reality is sad. She grows up to develop a powerful imagination and deep love for literature, both of which serve as escapism to cope with the harsh realities of her life. Eventually, Winterson is compelled to leave that town, and she throws herself into academics which lead her to Oxford.
The second half of the book is written in a bit more real time. It chronicles the aftermath of a harrowing breakup which involved literally going ‘mad’, the progression of a budding relationship, and the hostilities of cold legal proceedings on the quest to find her biological mother, and finally reconciliation with her biological mother. It’s a lot. But the thing is that Winterson does a damn good job with writing it, I think it’s because she has a deep respect and admiration for literature, which is obvious here. As she considers the life she could have had if she wasn’t given up for adoption, she’s aware that she wouldn’t be the person she is today and despite her past she’s happy with who she is. She says, “I would rather be this me, than the me I might have become without books, without education, and without all the things that have happened to me along the way”. I was moved by how she remembers her adoptive mother, she says “she was a monster, but she was my monster”.
Here are some of the quotes I highlighted.
- “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.”
- “Creativity is on the side of health - it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.”
- “To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.”
“Pursuing happiness, and I did, and still do, is not at all the same as being happy- which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.
If the sun is shining, stand in it- yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass- they have to- because time passes.
The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred.
What you are pursuing is meaning- a meaningful life. There’s the hap- the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use- that’s going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.”