Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson



Grove Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-802-12010-6.
Reviewed by Jill Day
Posted on 05/31/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir

Many of Jeanette Winterson's critically acclaimed books have been autobiographical but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is her first memoir. With the same irrepressibly audacious voice and her talent for transcending conventional storytelling, Winterson reveals a life that has been both horrific and charmed. It would be easy to get swept up in the archetypal drama of her outsized and eccentric characters, but what grounds this memoir is the pulse of real longing at its center. The humor and the rollicking tone make the story all the more poignant because Winterson is masterful at highlighting the absurd in to illuminate the truth.

As much as this story is about a quest to find a mother's love, and when that seems impossible to find any source of love, it is also about her salvation through literature. Winterson weaves in this potent thread of her evolution as an avid reader and writer and how it buoyed and rescued her, and also how it shaped her. Reading was a natural ally against the enemies of her home life and writing became her crowning victory. She writes, "I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself."

Many children would have been broken by the likes of Winterson's volatile and exacting adoptive mother. Instead she provided the perfect foil to Jeanette's scrappy, resilient nature. Perhaps growing up under Mrs. Winterson's extreme and peculiar convictions even subtly provided the groundwork for young Winterson to later believe just as staunchly in her own original impulses.

Sure to become a classic memoir, Why Be Happy is a stand-out example of how the adept literary wand can transform one woman's very specific life into an epic story of universal appeal.


Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester, England in 1959 and adopted by Pentecostal parents who brought her up in the nearby mill-town of Accrington. By age 16 Winterson identified as a lesbian and left home. After studying at Oxford, she wrote her first novel and began her prolific writing career. She has won various awards around the world for her fiction and adaptations, including the Whitbread Prize, UK, and the Prix d'argent, Cannes Film Festival. Visit her website.

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