Review, IB Favorites Edition: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Oranges Are Not The Only FruitBook: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Rating: 5/5 metaphorical oranges

Recommended if you like: LGBTQ novels, coming of age stories, unconventional storytelling, religious metaphors that aren’t out to convert you to religion

First lines: “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.”

Published: 1985 by Grove Press, 192 pages

Have you ever felt like a book was written just for you? Like someone peeked into your life and translated your innermost feelings into literary form? That’s what Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is to me. It’s my novel soul-mate, first encountered when I was just coming out of the closet and was full of confusion and conflict. Reading this the first time was a visceral experience and rereading it now is still very emotional. In fact, it is proving very hard to write any kind of coherent review because of THE FEELS but I’ll do my best.

Oranges is a thinly veiled autobiographical novel starring Jeanette herself who is adopted by Pentecostal parents in the North of England and who, eventually, discovers she loves women rather than men. Once caught, her religious community– her only community– gives her a choice: Accept the Spirit in her heart aka lie every day about who she really is or be disowned and thrown out onto the streets. In it we bring together the two most complicated and controversial things on earth: religion and sex.

If you have only a casual acquaintance with religion, there is a lot of depth to this book that you may not immediately see. Allusion and symbolism permeate every word, from Jeanette’s mother’s reoccurring declaration that “Oranges are the only fruit” to  the chapters named after the first eight books of the Old Testament. Jeanette not only narrates the events of her life with wit and heartbreaking honesty, but also provides emotional commentary using the most biblical of devices—the parable. It may be tempting to glaze over these interspersed departures from the plot but you’ll miss half the point of the book if you do. They’re metaphors for what is going on in Jeanette’s head and somehow feel both familiar and entirely new.

It’s funny how memory can play tricks on you. I wanted to review this for Literary Friction month because it was the first book I read with lesbian sex scenes, and I remembered them being elaborate and intense. However, when I reached the point in the book where Jeanette starts sleeping with her “best friend” Melanie, said juicy sex scenes failed to make an appearance. I mean, they’re there but not the way I remembered them. My mind, apparently, had turned beautiful and subtle descriptions of feelings of love and connection into their physical expression all on its own. Which probably says something profound about me. Or maybe I just really wanted to have sex? I dunno. In any case, even though the nitty gritty is left to the readers imagination, sex and sexuality quietly permeate every page. They aren’t described or discussed because in Jeanette’s mother’s house sex is something that just isn’t talked about, which I know I, and probably many of you, can relate to.

Now, I wasn’t raised Pentecostal, but I was raised Mormon and there are a lot of similarities between the two. The deep shame surrounding sex and the refusal to accept homosexuality obviously make the list, but maybe even more than that is the constant, tangible presence of God, the Devil and the Holy Spirit. God is always watching, always judging, and Satan is ALWAYS trying to find a way to bring you down. The battle is real and it fills every moment of every day. Nothing gets past his notice.

Jeanette grows up in a house where there is no room for grey. There is black and white. Good and bad. On the very first page, Jeanette lists the things her mother considers Friends and Enemies.

“Enemies were:

The Devil (in his many forms)

Next Door

Sex (in its many forms)

Slugs”

I mean… a list of four enemies and one of them is sex? Talk about someone in need of some therapy. (I actually have a theory that Jeanette’s mother is a closet lesbian but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.)

So having been raised in this environment what I find super interesting is that when she falls for Melanie, Jeanette displays no signs of self-loathing. Melanie crumbles right away under the order to repent after the two are caught, but Jeanette refuses, claiming she can love Melanie and the Lord both at the same time. While locked in her room awaiting her exorcism she wavers for only a moment, wondering “Can love really belong to the demon?” But she quickly makes up her mind that, no, it doesn’t. She instinctively knows there is nothing wrong or sinful about her, despite what she has been told her whole life. She distinguishes the actions of the servants of God, from  God himself — a much more charitable distinction than I think I could have mustered were I in her position. Especially  considering that the servants of God lock her in a room and starve her to get her to accept the Spirit back into her heart.

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Girl on girl action aside, it is Jeanette’s relationship with her mother, rather than with any of the women she sleeps with, that is the heart of the story. Her mother moves through life filled to the brim with an arrogant self-righteousness moral superiority. She has no problem declaring that she loves God more than anyone on earth—even more than her own daughter. As a reader we want to scream that Jeanette simply has to leave her mother’s house and cut off all communication. But the truth is much more complicated than that. Winterson describes the connection with the person we were once the closest to in the whole world, a connection that is nearly impossible to sever, as an unbreakable thread:

“There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back. Mind turns to the pull, it’s hard to pull away… Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own; she had tied a thread around my button, to tug when she pleased.”

Oranges resonantes so completely with me because I totally relate to Jeanette’s journey. While my coming out, thankfully, did not involve an exorcism, I too had to deeply hurt the person who loved me most in order to fully become the person I am. I’ve heard my whole life how much I am like my mother. I look like her; I talk like her. We like books and music and theater and food. She always understood me. We were always on the same side. And then one day I found myself across a great divide and there was absolutely no going back. She felt betrayed by me. I felt betrayed by her. Once again Winterson describes this feeling perfectly:

There are different kinds of treachery, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side and then being on somebody else’s.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that when I first read it, Jeanette’s final action filled me with rage. But I’m in a very different place in my life now, with a very different relationship with my mother, and I see what she does in an entirely new light. I suppose with age comes wisdom… or something.

Oranges is a story about finding yourself, about family, and about how hard it can be when those two identities collide. I didn’t have nearly as rough a time of it as Jeanette, but the story of a girl who has to choose between following her mother’s path for her, or one of her own making rang so true it was like a glove that fit me perfectly—and I have really small hands so that just never happens. Beautiful and creative, it is a classic I suggest everyone read. Whether you’re gay, religious, or not.

[sc:lezbrarian]

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20 thoughts on “Review, IB Favorites Edition: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

  1. Fantastic review! It is immediately going on my TBR list, and I know it won’t be long before I get to it. Relationships, the deep ones and especially those by birth (and sometimes marriage), are tough stuff.

  2. I was reading this review and a bit like, hrm maybe I’ll add this, but then I read THIS and I’m hooked: “Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own; she had tied a thread around my button, to tug when she pleased.”

    Oh wow. Get the rest of this story in my eye balls. Now.

    1. For realz! I had to resist just filling this review with quotes because everything she writes is so beautiful and quotable. The whole book is like that. It’s amazing.

  3. …religious metaphors that aren’t out to convert you to religion

    Oh, I like that! It’s always refreshing when someone can talk about their beliefs, or the beliefs they grew up with, and not make you feel like you have to join the club.

      1. It’s from the movie “Saved” which YOU SHOULD TOTALLY SEE. It’s about these girls who go to a super conservative Christian high school and the one who is getting hit (it’s a BIBLE that gets thrown at her… inorite?!) gets pregnant because she has sex with her boyfriend to try to cure him of being gay. It’s Hilarious and amazing and has Mary Louise Parker in it.

      2. I hadn’t heard of that one before! Definitely sounds interesting… And yeah, I guess if all else fails, hitting someone with a Bible will…uh…make them absorb its lessons by osmosis? Or something? Lol 😄

    1. Right! There is A LOT of talk of religion and God in the book, but because they were such an integral part of her life, not because she is out to convert anyone. She uses the religion in such a literary way too, it’s awesome.

  4. 1) YES SAVED GIF ALL OF THE WIN (and holy smokes can we PLEASE do a drinkalong)

    2) Can we just take a moment to solemnly toast Grove Press for being real as shit? I mean, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, Franz Fanon, Beckett, the Beats…and this? What other American publishing house has been so consistently like “Yeah, we want to talk about the realness, and fuck you people with your obscenity lawsuits. Go on, WE DARE YOU.” (Granted, the union-busting in 1970 wasn’t cool…but STILL.)

    Lovely review. On my to-read list like whoa now.

    1. Oh I had to resist using ALL the Saved Gifs. ALLLLL THE GIFS. But that moment is probably my favorite as it is the absolute definition of irony.

      Re: Saved Drinkalong— YES PLEASE!

  5. This is a brilliant post about an exceptional novel. My difficulties with my mother had nothing to do with religion or sex but I so related to Jeanette Winterson’s book, though my mother had died a while before it was written. Too late to help us out of our misunderstandings, but it helped me understand better how we had failed each other.

  6. I love this review and this book! I think the writing and storytelling in this book is just phenomenal, and the lessons of standing up for who you are, while trying to not hurt those who have raised and love you is one most people can identify with regardless of sexual orientation I think (but I’m sure is more relevant to those who have gone through a similar situation). What I love most about this book is the way Winterson doesn’t condemn either religion or homosexuality, but says there’s a place where you can have both in your ideology – something I truly believe but a lot of people have a hard time with.

    Anyway, great book and great review!

  7. Can you please review all the books I have to read in English literary studies? I’m not sure which moved me more, the book or this review. Thank you 🙂

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