Thursday, May 2, 2013
The Trouble With Books...
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother used to claim "The Devil led us to the wrong crib." It mostly got worse from there, culminating in the author leaving home at 16 because she was in love with a woman.
Why do I dislike this book? I think it's because it is written in present tense, and that technique always irritates me with its melodramatic breathlessness. Also, I think I am suspicious of memoirs in general, and creative nonfiction ones in particular. They are so personal, so subjective.
It is also difficult to tell your sad story without sounding self-pitying, and difficult to tell of your triumphs without being self-aggrandizing. Winterson misses the necessary tone to avoid these pitfalls, and I feel a bit cheated because I went into this book hoping it would be humorous because of the title and cover art. (Which goes to show the truth of the maxim about judging books by their cover.)
Parts of the author's life are fascinating: growing up in a working-class family in Manchester; a youthful project of reading the books in her library alphabetically because she knew so little about literature she couldn't think of a better way to do it; and of course, the difficult, damaged woman who adopted the author as an infant.
I liked the early flashes of defiance she mentions when Mrs. Winterson (which is how she refers to her mother) was cruel: when her mother locked her outside all night, Jeanette would drink all the milk and leave the empty bottles on the stoop. When Mrs. Winterson burned Jeanette's carefully collected hoard of paperbacks, Jeanette answered "Fuck it, I'll write my own" and did.
When Mrs. Winterson disappears from the narrative halfway through the book, the story loses much of its appeal. Jeanette's madness after breaking up with a girlfriend and her search for her birth mother are much less interesting (and veer into oversharing) than the maxims of her adoptive mother, which include "The trouble with books is you never know what's in them until it's too late."
Consider yourself warned.