Book: 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.
The Devil (in his many forms)
Sex (in its many forms)
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.
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.