This memoir about a life’s work to find happiness is full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir as unconventional and winning as the rollicking bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson’s youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the cleareyed free ... 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 the cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian.
The first half of this coming-of-age story is arresting and suspenseful, even though we know perfectly well that Jeanette will remain a lesbian, despite her mother’s best efforts, and will become a bestselling and influential writer. Winterson has a wonderfully off-kilter sense of humor about her dark past, but she is a loopy writer in the structural sense, too, preoccupied with the nonlinear nature of time. She swoops between present and past, between narrative and contemplation, with grace and economy ... Because [the second half] extends into the present, this section does not have — perhaps cannot have — the freeing distance of irony, of deadpan delivery, that the earlier part so effectively deploys. Winterson’s account of recovery and reunion with her birth mother is certainly moving — only a Mrs. W. would not be shaken — but the memoir’s second half sometimes seems plain and unWintersonesque in the telling.
Jeanette Winterson's memoir is written sparsely and hurriedly; it is sometimes so terse it's almost in note form. The impression this gives is not of sloppiness, but a desperate urgency to make the reader understand ... There is much here that's impressive, but what I find most unusual about it is the way it deepens one's sympathy, for everyone involved, so that the characters who are demons at the start – her adoptive mother but also, to a degree, her acquiescent adoptive father – emerge, by the end, as simply, catastrophically damaged. In the process of uncovering that, she painstakingly unpicks the damage they wreaked on her.