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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Hardcover – March 6, 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 246 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

In her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Winterson returns to the source, her grim girlhood in a sooty English industrial town in the 1960s, to tell her story more forthrightly than she has before. Aiming for narrative tidiness tends to dilute this memoir's delightfully unorthodox quality. But for the most part, this bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, and hard-won self-knowledge. —Parul Sehgal


A Best Book of the Year:
O, the Oprah Magazine (Favorite Reads)
Barnes & Noble
The Guardian
The Telegraph

—Winner of the Stonewall Award
—A New York Times Editors' Choice
—A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

"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

"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."—O, the Oprah Magazine

"She's 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. . . 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

"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."—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.”—New York Times Book Review

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

"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."—The Boston Globe

"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."—Slate

"Riveting . . . Beautifully open . . . Why Be Happy is a meditation on loss, stories, and silences."—Newsday

"[Winterson's] novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince 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."—Bookforum

"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)

"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 be—Normal? 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."—The Sunday Times (UK)

"To read Jeanette Winterson's books is to know the exquisite torment of envying every bloody word she writes on the page. . . . Winterson may be one of the bravest writers of our time."—Huffington Post

"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."—Bookpage

"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."—Financial Times

"Riveting . . . There's a lot of flinty humor here, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoption—and a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it."—Entertainment Weekly (A-)

"Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording can—and should—be."—Bookreporter

"There’s always been something Byronic about Winterson—a 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."—Salon

"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."—The Independent (UK)

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

"An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography."—The Guardian (Best Book of 2011)

"[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."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"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

"[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted."—The Seattle Times

"At last—and 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."—Evening Standard (UK)

"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 daring—and riskiest—experiments 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 When You Could Be Normal?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."—The Times (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.”—Library Journal (starred review)

"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.”—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."—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."—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."—The Daily Mail

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (March 6, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802120105
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802120106
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (246 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #697,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
How to start a review of Jeanette Winterson and her writing. Not an easy task. If you have read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her autobiographical novel about her childhood and early adulthood, then you know that she is a fiery independent woman, who, incidentally, is also a lesbian. She wrote it as fiction in her twenties. Now in her fifties, she revisits that time of her life. The term brutal honesty keeps popping up, but she is not brutal. There is a profound tenderness for herself and for those in her life. What she shows us is the hard scrabble life in working class Northern England of the seventies. (Her observations on the effects of Thatcher's policies are sharp-edged.) Looking back after thirty, forty years, she seems to have found some forgiveness for the woman apparently incapable of love who adopted her.
Winterson does not write "womb to tomb" as she puts it. She circles the object of her study, her book. And we realize that this object is her heart, so tough that love is not allowed in. She pokes here and there, probing her memories, reliving brief insightful moments of her childhood. She reports to us how she could not love anyone, or even befriend a classmate, despite desperately needing someone in her young life.
And then, being Jeanette Winterson, she takes us to the present time and her search for her birth mother, which is mainly a struggle to get though the bureaucratic procedures set up to thwart adoptees from locating their birth parents.
The book ends with limited resolution, with Jeanette's heart finally opening. It is the most tender-hearted inconclusive ending I have read, probably ever. She stands with her heart exposed, bruised, torn, but beating strong.
I love this woman's writing. I do not always like her books, but this one is truly magnificent.
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Format: Kindle Edition
In the October 28th Guardian, Jeanette has an essay which retells the opening of Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? The retelling is as riveting as the original. In essay and book, Winterson portrays herself as a survivor. Her childhood reads like the darker parts of some Grimms fairytale, even if her telling of the story is often lightened by empathy. Here, for instance, is a description of her often abusive, book-burning, adoptive mother.

"She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her."

A later passage reads:

"Babies are frightening - raw tyrants whose only kingdom is their own body. My new mother had a lot of problems with the body - her own, my dad's, their bodies together, and mine. She had muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mixture of nicotine and Jesus, dosed it with purgatives that made her vomit, submitted it to doctors, who administered enemas and pelvic rings, subdued its desires for ordinary touch and comfort. Then suddenly, not out of her own body, and with no preparation, she had a thing that was all body. A burping, vomiting, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life."

Jeanette makes it hard not to feel some sympathy, even for twisted Mrs. Winterson.

Like many patremoirs, Winterson's matremoir is as much about the power of storytelling as it is about the parent.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
My one thought on finishing this book is that I'd like to convey to Ms. Winterson my sorrow over her abusive and stunted childhood. I had a strict and restrictive faith upbringing, but it was within the context of a stable home and caring parents. For those who complain that Ms. Winterson is a whiner, I believe there is no way to adequately express how deeply this kind of upbringing can crush your soul. Well, there is one way of doing it -- by writing about it. Ms. Winterson has done that, both here and with her fictional Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and I hope it brings her a measure of peace.

My three-star rating stems from the fact that in this memoir, Ms. Winterson refers repeatedly to her other books and writings, quoting parts of them at length, and I'm not familiar with these books, so the references didn't hold the depth of meaning for me that they obviously hold for her. This feeling that I was missing out on something made it hard for me to stay with the narrative at many points. Yet she is a colorful and insightful writer, which kept me reading to the end.
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Highlighted on my kindle for the first time, a rarity, don't expect to repeat that. Laughed and cried, in just about equal measures. I would say I am not normally gripped by 'quality' writing in itself, like some people I know, where the story does not compel me but his book has it all. So impressed; by the story, the writing, the writer, the profoundness. I am calling it a perfect read and something I have learnt from.
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