Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

My real life book club read Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel and met to discuss it last night. When I think of all the years I longed to be part of a book club but couldn’t find one! Sometimes the universe just makes you wait for a good reason. I’m thoroughly enjoying this group of people – last night nine women and one man, and a marked tendency towards scientists. The poor lone male looked so disappointed when I arrived without Mister Litlove, who had graced the mini-meeting I’d had at my own house the week before. He longed for male company even more when the discussion slid off the rails and towards Fifty Shades and its ilk at the end of the evening. Nine women shrieking with laughter at the memory of all the dodgy books they’d read when young is perhaps not the most comfortable situation for a male witness. But if I was also sorry Mister Litlove wasn’t there, it was because he would have adored that part of the conversation. It’s reading a book to order that he can’t quite manage.

Still, Oranges! This completely divided the room, half loving it, half not getting it at all. Interestingly enough, the against camp had a tendency to like vampire stories and were curious to read Fifty Shades, which makes me convinced that you could create reading maps for different fictional tastes. Not that I am about to try that. Having read Winterson’s excellent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal just recently, it was interesting to see how very autobiographical this novel is. A coming-of-age story, the narrator is the adopted daughter of a fierce evangelical Christian, a woman whose tremendous strength of mind and purpose has crossed the fine line between zeal and zealot. Mrs Winterson is a magnificent creation, formidable, bullying, entrepreneurial, and completely bonkers. Jeanette loves her, when she is her mother’s thing, compliant with her religious worldview. But as she grows and is forced to enter the so-called real world, she realises how ill-equipped she is for normality. And the jolly if somewhat demented religious community she has felt secure and at home in, turns out to be unable to cope with the demands of an adolescent’s body, particularly when in Jeanette’s case, her desire develops for other women. Her mother, most of all, finds Jeanette’s sexuality impossible to accept, and so the great love Jeanette has held for her turns sour in the face of her mother’s utter inability to bend or compromise. It takes terrific force to turn away from a magnetic personality, particularly when the power belongs to a parent, and this novel charts what amounts to a spectacular fall from grace, for both mother and daughter.

So this is a book about a young woman who is radically different and distressingly unacceptable to both of the worlds she is forced to live in, the religious and the secular. It’s also about how hard and heart-breaking it is to be obliged to forge a new, unique path outside the cosy but constraining remit of belonging. What makes Oranges a special novel is the delightful humour that lightens every page. What could have been a dark and distressing story is told with such wry and entertaining bathos, as Jeanette relishes the juxtaposition of high-minded religious notions in a working class Northern town, a contradiction in which both sides look a little ludicrous and yet ultimately lovable, exemplified by the little notes Mrs Winterson leaves her husband on the kitchen table containing messages like ‘I am busy with the Lord in Wigan.’ Or Jeanette’s youthful belief that her mother’s dire warning about the two local newsagents’ ladies dealing in ‘unnatural passions’ meant that they put chemicals in their sweets. Whether or not you like Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is determined to some extent by your sense of humour. Certainly last night the readers who didn’t like it hadn’t found it funny. I don’t know how this could be possible, but then a sense of humour is a blinkering thing, impossible to put yourself in another’s shoes over it.

However, the novel is not just a comedy turn, as it has a decidedly literary ambition, too. Interpolated between scenes from Jeanette’s growing-up are various fragments of fairy tale, myth and legend, all of which reflect pertinently on her desires and fears as she grows. These part-stories are rewritten in a similar voice to the rest of the novel, and often feature stong or quirky female figures. I felt they worked well with the story as fairy tales and myths are mostly dramas of initiation and development, reinforcing the belief in our innate creativity and courage. An alternative reading of fairy tales is that they are designed to soothe parental fears about the damage we have inflicted on our children, equally apt given the monstrous but magnificent figure of Mrs Winterson and the complicated legacy with which she burdens Jeanette. And finally, these fragments offer an alternative form of parable to the religious stories that dominate Jeanette’s upbringing. For all that the religious community turns out to be something that she must walk away from for her sanity and her desire to be true to herself, the bible structures the novel, its chapters echoing the first eight chapters of the Old Testament. But more than that, the way the bible tells stories infuses the writing of the novel, its sparseness, its fascination with power, destiny, and dysfunctional families, its way of making meaning by telling a story that is actually about something quite other than its own elements. The bible as literature informs Winterson’s creative imagination, but in life as in writing, what she does with it is highly unusual, very personal and joyously innovative.

I first read this, oh about twenty years ago, and at the time, it blew me away. Reading it for a second time, I still enjoyed it thoroughly, but it felt a little more ragged than it did on that first occasion. I suppose I’ve read enough of Winterson’s later works to appreciate the refining of her talent (although after the early 90s I felt she steered dangerously close to pretention at times). But little that she has written subsequently has the boisterous humour of this book. However, if you really like vampire stories or Fifty Shades, it might not work for you.

30 thoughts on “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

  1. What a fascinating split in your group! I should see if I have this one on my shelf and read it while I still have some recollection of the memoir. What did the lone gentleman of the group think of it?

    • Ah, he was on the side who loved it. But definitely, if you have the chance to read it while the memoir is relatively fresh in your mind, do see if you can fit it in. I’d really love to know what you think about it, and about the quite fascinating autobiographical angle.

  2. I can imagine the reactiosn were quite divided. I haven’t finished the memoir yet but since I started I’d like to read this. I read Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body but at least ten years ago, so do not remember them that clearly. I’m interested to see how she incorporates fairy tales. For some reason I feel, the author of this and the one of The Daylight Gate are almost two different people.
    I think, judging from the memoir, it was courageous of her to write this novel.

    • Yes, I agree, I do think it was courageous, too. But then Winterson is a naturally outspoken person, and I think she was aware that it was an incredible story. I also can’t quite imagine the author of this book writing something quite so grisly as The Daylight Gate. I’m not sure why she chose that approach, it does seem so unlike her usual style. But I’d love to know what you think of Oranges.

  3. I think Jeanette Winterson would strenuously argue with you over the ‘autobiographical’ label! She writes on her site ‘Oranges is written in the first person, it’s direct and uninhibited, but it isn’t autobiography in the real sense. I have noticed that when women writers put themselves into their fiction, it’s called autobiography. When men do it, such as Paul Auster or Milan Kundera it’s called meta-fiction.’ Although she is perhaps being a leetle disingenuous.

    I remember loving this when I first read it and keep meaning to return to it. (I still remember: The summer is over and we are not yet saved!) I am glad you found that it has stood the test of time well. You really put your finger exactly on what makes it so good.

    • Well, it’s autobiographical fiction, but if Winterson is claiming that it hasn’t got much to do with her life, then my response to that would be a resounding: Hah! And I would quite happily use the autobiography label on male-authored works too. But then I feel bad, because Winterson is making a political point that is probably worth making and just because I react differently doesn’t matter in the least. I’m so glad you are an Oranges fan, too, and I love that line you remembered. Some of the jokes are just so hilarious.

      • Heh, I don’t think she’s claiming that she didn’t draw heavily from her own life, perhaps more that the ‘fiction’ part should receive more emphasis than the ‘autobiography’ part.

        As for the politics, I don’t know, I haven’t read enough Auster or Kundera but I had the impression that although they might appear in their books the plots tended not to follow incidents which had really happened to them. Maybe I’m wrong? I really don’t know. But I do think that if you have a very unusual childhood and write a novel about a character who shares your name and has what looks like the same very unusual childhood, involving other characters whom you also call by their real names, then you do invite speculation which involves the word ‘autobiography’ more than the word ‘meta-fiction’.

  4. I actually just read this book for the first time a few weeks ago. I did find it funny and sad. I particularly found it touching young Jeannette’s incomprehension when her biblically and operatically themed school projects were passed over for lesser creations. The only other book by Winterson I had read prior to this was The Passion, which knocked my socks off 15 years ago or so. I don’t think I had ever read a book that was so fantastical or creative at that point in my life.

    • I read The Passion about the same length of time ago and loved it too. I really loved those early novels of hers, so fresh and unique. And I responded strongly to her school projects, partly because I used to do the same age-inappropriate sort of thing (although not religious themed!). I’m so glad you enjoyed this book.

  5. This is my favorite of the Winterson novels I’ve read (four, plus the memoir — which is a lot for an author I’m not super, super fond of!), but I don’t remember it being funny. Hmmm. I wonder what my take on it would be if I were to read it again. I’m glad you’ve found a good book group!

    • That’s so intriguing! I also wonder what you’d think of it a second time around, but you can leave it a few more years. I think it must be a good twenty since I read it the first time! And it’s lovely to have a good book group – I always love the sound of yours, particularly with your weekends away! 🙂

  6. Hi Litlove – I love the way you describe the experience of discussing “oranges” at your new bookgroup. I was in a bookgroup (founded by a friend and I) for 5 years and one of the books we tackled was Winterson’s “Written on the Body”. I seem to recall we had quite a split in our group on that one too. I haven’t read “Oranges” but might put it on my list. I read a review of Winterson’s “Why be happy when you could be normal” and was really struck by it. Hard for me to imagine growing up with a mother who would say that to her daughter. I’m attracted to your description of the humour in the book. As always, I enjoyed your post!

    • Hello dear Beth! I think Written on the Body would have been a brillliant choice for a book group and how interesting that you had a split too! I think you might enjoy the memoir as it is so tautly and fiercely written. It’s certainly the only one of Winterson’s recent books that I’ve really appreciated with all my heart. I love it when she uses her sense of humour and am a little disappointed when she relies solely on her darker voice. It’s lovely to have you visit and I’m always so happy to hear from you!

  7. I love vampire stories (not so much now, I am on a break from vampires until the world chills out a bit), though I suspect I would loathe Fifty Shades of Grey, and I thought Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was fantastic. It’s the only book of Jeannette Winterson’s that I’ve liked so far, though, which has made me reluctant to try Why Be Happy etc or to reread Oranges.

    Did anyone talk about Forever Amber in this smut conversation? I read it on a camping trip one time, and about a fifth of the way through I stopped and reported all the smutty/shocking things that had happened to my family members, and my cousin Alaska said, “That CAN’T all have happened already! I can see how much of the book you’ve read so far! There hasn’t been ROOM for all of that!” But she was wrong. All those things had happened.

    • Ha, that’s quite funny, because when I wrote about the vampires and Fifty Shades I thought to myself: I’ll have a whole list of comments now from people refuting that! 😉 But don’t be afraid to read the memoir, as it is closest by far to Oranges and I certainly enjoyed it far more than any of her other works from the past 15 years or so. As for Forever Amber, yes indeed, it DID get a mention! I actually do own a copy of it, and am now not certain whether I’d enjoy it or not – hopefully it is much better written than the grisly Fifty Shades.

  8. The only book I’ve read by Jeanette Winterson is The Passion, and I loved the elements of magical realism in it. What you say about the terrific force required to overcome a strong personality, especially if it’s one’s own mother, struck me, as did the interweaving of the Bible with Jeanette’s imagination. I don’t think many books can beat the Bible in terms of including dysfunctional families; the stories in the Old Testament are a wealth of information from which an author can spring. I love Madeleine L’Engle’s opinion that the stories don’t have to be real (factual to the nth detail) to tell the truth. What they portray is the real message. Of course, here I digress, so I’ll leave you while pondering this passage from your post: “the way the bible tells stories infuses the writing of the novel, its sparseness, its fascination with power, destiny, and dysfunctional families, its way of making meaning by telling a story that is actually about something quite other than its own elements.” How intriguing are the ideas which you, and Jeanette, present.

    • Your comment about Madeleine L’Engle is really tickling something at the back of my memory, an essay that I read recently about the ‘different’ but powerful and necessary truth that fiction embodies. I just wish I could pin the reference down! I admit I do not know a great deal about the Old Testament, but it’s certainly a wonderful way to learn about it through a novel like this! And I loved The Passion too – that mix of realism and fantasy seemed so amazing and fresh to me the first time I read it.

  9. Really pleased that you’re still enjoying book club. Iit was a good discussion. I like it when the audience splits in two, it makes for an interesting evening! Am off looking for ‘Why be happy…’ now. I tried to make Mr TH feel guilty about not coming along- didn’t work though! (He asked if Mr L was there & responded ‘Ha’ in a knowing way when I said ithat he wasn’t…! Perhaps they got together & had a man-chat-book-club instead?)

    • We shall have to put our heads together and see what we are going to do about our husbands! I’m sure this is something we can crack. 🙂 And yours is such a fantastic book club; lovely people and a great format. Thank you for letting me join in!

  10. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time. I can see now that I will have to move it closer to the top of my list.

    I’ve just read Winterson’s new book ‘The Daylight Gate’ and I’d be interested to see how it compares to her other writing.

    • From what I’ve heard (and this is essentially Caroline’s review) it sounds a far more gruesome book than Winterson usually writes. I see you’ve posted a review and will be very interested to read your thoughts. I think you’ll find Oranges a very different propostion and would love to know how it strikes you!

  11. Since vampire or Fifty Shades books are out for me, I’m thinking I might get on well with this one! 🙂 Actually you sold me when you wrote about her memoir–I’ve just not gotten around to either yet. Is one better to start with than the other (keeping in mind I own Oranges). I’ve only read Sexing the Cherry for the Slaves, which I wasn’t expecting to get on well with but ended up quite liking. I’m looking forward to reading another by her. And your book group sounds like fun. I belonged to one years ago, but dropped out for some reason or another. They are fun to be involved with and it sounds like you have an interesting group.

    • Hmm, tricky question about which one to read first. I think quite possibly that Oranges would be the better place to start – then you have the interest afterwards of seeing how much real life went into it. It’s an easier read than Sexing the Cherry, although you’ll recognise a lot of the same elements. I’d love to know what you think of it!

    • I think that she manages to incorporate the fairy tale elements better in subsequent books; it’s a bit rough and ready in Oranges! I’m so glad you enjoyed it though. I think it’s such an unusual book with a really unique voice.

  12. I so enjoyed reading this. I recently read her autobiography and enjoyed it thoroughly, and had read the novel , like you, many years ago. So you’re take on it now, and the comparison with how you felt about it before, is all the more interesting.

  13. Pingback: Link Round Up: September 4-11 « The Lesbrary

  14. Pingback: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson | Iris on Books

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