Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette has the dubious distinction of being raised by one of the most vocal women in the fire-brand style Evangelical church in a small British town. Although she at first is different among her school chums for her beliefs, soon she becomes marked as different in her church for her homosexuality. Her journey from differently religious to outcast young adult is chronicled here.
I picked this up when I heard that it’s a lesbian classic that simultaneously addresses being raised fundy. Having been raised fundy myself (and left to become staunchly atheist), I tend to find these leaving the faith stories highly relatable, and I knew the added GLBTQ element would just make it all the more interesting of a read for me.
One interesting thing to note about this book is that no one can quite agree if it’s a novel or a memoir. Winterson herself says that while this was inspired by her own childhood, it is the lite version. Hers was much worse. Given this statement, I choose to respect the author and view this as a novel, but potential readers may want to be aware of this element of the book.
Jeanette (the character) is immediately immensely likeable. Whereas her mother is overbearing and negative, Jeanette is highly intelligent and witty. Her observations on the Bible and religion in the early parts of the book before she realizes she is gay are hilarious, particularly to anyone raised in a fundamentalist faith.
I didn’t know quite what fornicating was, but I had read about it in Deuteronomy, and I knew it was a sin. But why was it so noisy? Most sins you did quietly so as not to get caught. (location 533)
As the book moves from Jeanette’s early life to her adolescence the writing style changes a bit. Winterson inserts various fantastical fancies of Jeanette’s that are clearly her way of trying to discover who she is and explore her options. Some readers might be thrown by these, but I found them delightful. It’s a coping mechanism that I think many people use but few authors put down on paper.
Through these periodic fantastical tales combined with the more traditional narrative, we slowly see Jeanette fall in love with another girl at her church. We then see the fall-out. The two girls torn apart. The attempts at exorcisms. Jeanette is left bereft and confused because, unlike myself, she still wanted her faith. She wanted to believe in God the way she was raised to and to be allowed to love women. She can’t figure out why she can’t have both and thus is left wandering lost and confused.
The novel never makes it clear if Jeanette comes to terms with her lesbianism by letting go of her religion or by finding a more accepting one. It kind of ends on an uncertain, agnostic if you will, note. But that’s really irrelevant. What matters is how beautifully the novel shows the pain that adolescents are needlessly put through when those around them won’t love them for who they are.
At last she put on her gloves and beret and very lightly kissed me goodbye. I felt nothing. But when she’d gone, I pulled up my knees under my chin, and begged the Lord to set me free. (location 1180)
It’s not a book with a clear ending or easy answers, but neither is life really, is it? What it does possess though is a great ability to show a reader the life of a child raised Evangelical who later just cannot fit the mold demanded of her. And that’s a powerful story that needs to be told over and over again until people get it that we can’t do that to children.
Recommended to those with an interest in unique story-telling techniques and coming out stories.
4 out of 5 stars