This is my review for Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.
I intend to use the ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.
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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a novel by Jeanette Winterson published in 1985 by Pandora Press. It is a coming-of-age story about a lesbian girl who grows up in an English Pentecostal community. Key themes of the book include transition from youth to adulthood, complex family relationships, same-sex relationships, organised religion and the concept of faith.Wikipedia.com
I like to start off with the T in my ASPECT method.
Why “THIS” book? At some point in the last year or so I did a google search for “lesbian novels” and saw this one on one of the lists that came up. The synopsis seemed interesting so onto the wish list it went. Then, in December, a book gift exchange happened and viola! Here it was, in my living room!
I don’t always jump from one extreme to another, but the fact that this seemed pretty polar opposite from the last book I read and reviewed, Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler, made me happy. Plus I am a saphic queer and I have family who were very active in the Pentacostal church in the 80s, so I felt a pull.
Full disclosure: I really liked this book and so I did a bit of research on it. I found some fascinating trivia such as the fact that even though it is considered a “lesbian novel” (and thus is why I found it) Winterson has objected to this label, arguing, “I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers”
Right on… and she is so right! Being straight should not be the default assumption. It just… shouldn’t. BUT it is nice to be able to find wlw books when that is what you are hankering for. But aslo, this novel is far more complex and interesting than the label “lesbian novel” would imply. It is a novel that tells a coming of age story about a lesbain.
Ok, let’s continue my ASPECT review.
Style/Atmosphere: Winterson excels in puting us firmly into time and place even though her writing style moves between straightforward narrative to stream of consciousness diatribes to fairy tales and sidebar stories with an almost dizzying speed. Everyone who was real, felt real. And everyone who was part of the fantasy interior storylines… felt perfectly in place there as well. The descriptions of the village were carefully done to keep us firmly in the here and then, so to speak, even while the characters themselves were larger than life and at some points absurd. But that absurdity never got into cartoon territory. Believable. Everything was believable. Which is quite a feat for a book that is part fairy tale, Aurthuian legend, and folklore.
Plot: The novel told a complete story. A coming of age story. A dawning disillusionment with the religion you were brought up in sort of story. A finding oneself story. And yes, a lesbian story. It wasn’t graphic or even titillating, which was fine. An overly descrpibed lesbian tryst would have felt severly out of place… not something one is prone to say about a “lesbain novel.” I like where the characters ended up and the lessons that they learned along the way. If it took me longer than it should have to finish it, it is probably because… well… ok
Tangent Time. I have recently started using THC in lieu of wine as my go-to “want to relax and kick back and be goofy” method. I will tell you that my brain on THC is a LOT like Winterson’s writing of Novel Jeannette’s random fairy tale magic allegories and diatribes. I will admit to having to reread a few sections because I knew I was missing something due to my impaired state of mine… or wondering if I could still possibly be high three days later because there are moments in the prose where I felt a contact high from the way Novel Jeanette sees and interacts with the world.
The sheer number of literary allusions are too many to list here and I know I missed several even though I was attempting at one point to take notes. No wonder they assign this book in schools!
End of THC tangent.
Characters: I loved Novel Jeanette. She is smart, funny, deep, complex, and totally believable.I rooted for her from page one and even when I questioned her actions, I never questioned her authenticity. This might be because she is based on Real Life Jeanette, but I think it is beyond that. Lots of people base books on themselves and either veer into Mary Sue territory or into introspective specificity that leaves the reader out of the loop. Not so in this book! Also, her mother is a very deeply drawn character. (Actually most of the side characters have decent depth with the exception of “my mother’s husband”, but I digress.) Her mother’s faith and craziness and how they overlapped upon each other was… chilling at times but, again, so believable it almost hurt.
I really enjoyed this book. And it had a happy ending!
Would I recommend it? Well… yes and no. It is not a book for a casual reader. It is not a typical coming out story (if that is what you are looking for). And yet… it has layers and is literary and if you don’t mind the strangeness and the symbolism that drips off every page like… well, like orange juice when you take a big old bite, then yes. This might be the book for you.
Reminder of the ASPECT method.
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This: Why did I read *This* book?