Book Club #2: “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”

Hi, Book Club. It’s good to see you. Let’s talk about talking about books for a moment.

While discussing books is a large part of my life now; in my earlier days I actually used to hate it. The way I felt about a book couldn’t be put into words, and to be persuaded by other people’s opinions would taint my perception of my own experience, would crowd into the world the book had created in my head, for my head alone. In other words, I was possessive. But then I grew up a little, and found that talking about books with other people was better the more I did it; that I could express my ideas and people wouldn’t say they were dumb; that listening to other people’s opinions did change my world, a little, but mostly made it richer.

Discussing and reviewing fiction, in fact, became easy. It’s fun to agree or disagree about characters we love or hate; interesting to ponder why and how an author built the stepping stones of a story the way they did. Fun to think about an author’s motives and inspiration, and then people’s various reactions to the end result. Understanding the way literature affects a mass of diverse people differently started to not feel intruding or offensive, but meaningful and empowering.

And then a book like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is chosen for your book club.

I must admit that even trying to think of questions to ask about this book made my brain temporarily shut down, made my reading heart turn possessive again. It felt too personal — both Jeanette’s experience, and my own while reading it. It also made me think about discussing memoirs. Is it fair to dissect another person’s life? Even more, is it fair to analyze how that person chose to tell it?

While one part of me says no, another chunk of my brain answers: of course it is. Even non-fiction is not static; all art inherently opens itself up to critical discussion, as it should. This chunk of my brain says, you are just making excuses about discussing this book, because it didn’t leave you with easy questions to ask, but instead with pieces of stone sitting in your stomach: some small, some large; some hopeful, some not; but all stone, solid and grey and full of weight, nonetheless.

So I’ll ask some questions, but Book Club, if you just want to talk about your own stones, that’s super by me, too.

1) To pin down what this book was even exactly about is difficult in itself. So it’s a book about Jeanette Winterson’s adopted mother, and then her eventual search to find her biological one. Sure. But it’s also about a million other things. Which sections or themes struck you the most? Mrs. Winterson and her exorcism and book burning? English Literature A-Z and the power it gave Jeanette? The “lost loss” of adoption? Or the countless meditations on love, love, love — giving it, receiving it, deserving it?

2) Jeanette Winterson’s style — there’s just something about it. Do you love it? Hate it? Is it even possible to be indifferent about it?

3) So Mrs. Winterson was fifty shades of the worst, right? Yet when Jeanette finally meets Ann, she says about her, “She was a monster, but she was my monster.” And even though we just witnessed Mrs. Winterson being fifty shades of the worst, we’re like, “YEAH.” What’s up with that?

4) Speaking of Mrs. Winterson, a lot of this book was hard to take. The darkness of the world that Jeanette grew up in was staggering. Yet, so much of it also seemed to be filled with hope. Even as we watched Jeanette work through issues that she still didn’t have all the answers to, even as she contradicted herself time and again, there was something about the struggle itself that seemed hopeful. You don’t struggle if you don’t have hope. Did you also feel this? What were the most hopeful parts or messages to you?

5) What were your feelings about that last line? Perfect? Strange? Anxiety-inducing — or comforting?

I’ll be back with your choices for next month’s book selection soon. For now, discuss away! Share any favorite lines! I’ll join in, wherever my head is able to sound coherent. Feelings, man.