Friday, June 12, 2009

The N-Spot: Review of Jeanette Winterson, "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit"

Background: Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959) is a recent discovery, thanks to my incredible—now former—thesis advisor, who suggested I check out her novel The Passion. Ever anxious to please, and interested after hearing shining things from another friend who had read it, I grabbed a brand spanking new copy of the novel from Barnes & Noble as a Christmas present for myself. Now, if you know what a compulsive used-book buyer I am (I binged on the other day, in fact!), my buying a brand new book is fairly momentous. And momentous was the result: The Passion wowed me in every possible sense; the prose was like glittering velvet, the characters fleshy and whole, the plot and elements of magical realism were glittering and engrossing. It concerns an androgynous young trickster woman who becomes involved with a soldier from Napoleon’s army—the plot details themselves aren’t all that showy, but Winterson’s verve makes all the difference. I can’t say anything but that it was one of my favorite novels of the year thus far.

That said, I went into Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with similarly high expectations. Keep in mind that this is a sort of fictionalized memoir about her rather unique growing pains; Winterson was on the path to become a Pentecostal missionary, raised by a truly cracked out evangelical mother, when she began to experiment and come to terms with her sexuality—which, as it turns out, leaned more towards women than towards men (or perhaps preferably, in her mother’s mind, to chastity through Christ). The ‘novel,’ in turn, follows these awkward experiences, beginning with Jeanette’s childhood in a hyper-religious community and following her up through her excommunication, so to speak, from said community (along with some interesting uses of exorcism). Winterson weaves in elements of myth, fairytales, and legends; Perceval of Arthuriana makes a few cameos, as do interesting accounts of another knight’s quest for perfection, and a young girl’s enslavement to a father-wizard. With these and biblical references so abundant, Winterson’s own history becomes inextricable from the sort of quest narratives we’re all familiar with, even if we aren’t particularly knowledgeable about evangelism or lesbian experience.

Ultimately, Oranges didn’t quite live up to my expectations, having read The Passion, but not because it wasn’t a good novel—because, I think, it was so pervasively quirky and frequently hilarious. It was, simply, different from her other novel, which was seductive and magical and foreboding and powerful—but not all that humorous or naïve. These are almost inevitable when dealing with the sort of experiences Winterson narrates here, and she certainly makes them work. Perhaps I’ve overdosed on the lesbian comint out memoir—I took a course last semester that dealt a lot with this, and read things like Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle; in effect, I felt like I’d gone through some of this before, though the religious aspect of Winterson’s text certainly raised the stakes. I suppose my one legitimate complaint was that there were times where I felt the novel could have elaborated further—I was often lost in a sea of names; Mrs. This and Mrs. That—who are they again? And why the hell do I care about them, if you give me nothing to go on? Though The Passion was also quite short, the characters were fewer, and each felt whole to me. Here, I understood the positions of the primary characters, but the supporting cast felt unfortunately like tracework at times. In any case, I hear this novel is pretty much Winterson 101, if you’re interested. I have my complaints, but they’re mere surface—the novel itself is quite good, often laugh-out-loud funny, and Winterson is such a skilled writer that a handful of passages from the novel make the entirety worth it. I’ll leave you with one of these:

I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn’t rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup. As it is, I can’t settle…

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