Monday, July 11, 2022

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Book Review)

A teen girl with orange hair, eating oranges, an overall surrealistic cover. Rolling green hills, a cottage, and a cross in the background
    
"Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" by Jeanette Winterson (published in 1985) was a surprise find in my home library. I simply don't remember purchasing it. And so when I was looking for a "downstairs" book to read, I chose to read it without even knowing what it was about (Downstairs = on the couch, Upstairs = in bed - I often read two books simultaneously). I now completely understand why I bought it, and while not quite a masterpiece, it is well worth your reading.
    "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" is a short novel about a girl, growing up in a very Pentecostal English community and her growing awakening as a young lesbian. That in itself would probably be reason for me to read it, but of course, my main goal when reading a book is to love the language itself. 
    And there was much to love. As a first novel, Winterson displays an ambition in both her storytelling and structure. Much of the prose is straightforward, but in a beautiful way. Not ornate by any stretch but neither boring nor perfunctory. Hers is a voice I'd like to read more of. 
    The story itself, and in some ways there is both a lot of story and very little, is semi-autobiographical (I believe). It is a fast read in both the length of the novel and the briskness of the pacing, jumping forward in time as it sees fit. Ultimately it is what it skips over that proves it's greatest weakness as a novel.
    The Jeannette of the story is adopted by a very devote missionizing mother. Her adoptive father is only vaguely in both their lives, apparently with no ill-will intended, he just simply couldn't possibly compete for space around her mother, for whom the entire novel orbits. Her mother in many ways is the center of the community's fervent faith. And as young Jeannette so calmly, so naturally, begins first one, and then a second relationship with a female friend, the town looks to her mother for how to address such a "demon" as her once promising daughter has become. And between their faith and Jeannette, there is really never a choice as to who will win in the end. For this is the real world, and not a fairy tale.
    That for me, is the one spot this otherwise beautifully rendered book falters. The book's ending (by no means the character's end) simply comes up too fast and too scattered. Just the right amount of time is spent through the first portions of the book. Each scene, each time period, each description is exactly what it needs to be and nothing more. 
    But then the book ends so fast, abruptly, and with a large time jump with little in the way of justification for a particular reunion and how that reunion plays out. Clearly so much has happened, so many things have changed (but obviously not enough), and yet we aren't privy to those developments. That lack of overtness can work to an author's advantage. Don't bother wasting the time or real estate on unnecessary details and back story and exposition when it's not needed. But when the meat of the journey is removed, it leaves a hole. From the climax to the resolution, there is almost nothing provided. It felt as though the book was missing 60 or 70 pages between the two. 
    That structure certainly didn't ruin the book for me. There was too much beauty and interest in it, too much to recommend it. But I want to know what happened between that climax (I'm so trying not to spoil too much for you), and the end passages. However, Winterson has another biographical book, more of a memoir, and I plan on reading that as well. Maybe I'll find some of what was missing in "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" in there, to piece together the gap in the fictional Jeanette's story with the real one's. 
    Do read this book though. It's quiet, calm exploration of Jeanette's growing feelings and understanding of herself intersecting with the fervent religious beliefs of her community and her own maturing understanding of her god, as possibly distinct from theirs, is quite compelling.

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Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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