Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (book review)

In 1984, Jeanette Winterson wrote Oranges are not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel in which she draws on elements from her own life; she was twenty-four at the time. I recall watching the 1990 TV adaptation with my mother – it screened shortly before she died – but it’s taken me far too long to get around to the book.

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Oranges is narrated by Jeanette, a young girl living in a working-class family in the North of England. As the novel opens, we begin to get a sense of Jeanette’s world and the dominant role her adoptive mother plays in her life – there is a father, but he’s largely absent from the story. In the eyes of Jeanette’s mother, everything is either black or white, either good or evil. There are no shades of grey:

She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies (pg. 3, Vintage)

Jeanette’s mother is heavily involved, obsessed even, with the local Pentecostal church and is grooming young Jeanette for a future as a church missionary. The novel contains some brilliant observations on the mother’s determination to take every opportunity to do the Lord’s work, converting the heathen in the ‘Great Struggle between good and evil’, and how family life revolves around this quest:

We had a lot of Bible quizzes at church and my mother like me to win. If I knew the answer she asked me another, if I didn’t she got cross, but luckily not for long, because we had to listen to the World Service. It was always the same; we sat down on either side of the radiogram, she with her tea, me with a pad and pencil; in front of us, the Missionary Map. The faraway voice in the middle of the set gave news of activities, converts and problems. At the end there was an appeal for YOUR PRAYERS. I had to write it all down so that my mother could deliver her church report that night. She was the Missionary Secretary. The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended on it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. (pg. 5)

At the beginning of the novel, Jeanette is aged seven, and not attending school as her mother considers it a ‘Breeding Ground’ – Jeanette doesn’t understand what this means, but she knows it sounds bad.

It’s not long though before the authorities are on to Jeanette’s mother, and our narrator is plunged into an unfamiliar environment, one that exposes the differences between Jeanette’s home life and the lives of her classmates. There’s a particularly painful scene where Jeanette is desperate to impress her teacher and class with her ‘What I Did in my Summer Holidays’ essay. The other kids’ essays are all the same – full of fishing trips, swimming and picnics – so Jeanette’s story of the church camp trip to Colwyn Bay cannot fail to impress, surely? But as Jeanette reads her essay aloud, her tale of preaching on the beach and the ‘Healing of the Sick crusade’ is greeted with silence, then giggles and a swift curtailment of events by her teacher. The young girl is puzzled; she knows something is going on, but doesn’t understand the reason for her classmates’ and teacher’s reactions.

A few weeks slip by, events at school continue in a similar vein. When the children are asked to design samplers in sewing class, most opt for birthday motifs or dedications to their mother: ‘TO MOTHER WITH LOVE.’ Jeanette, on the other hand, wants her design to reflect the prophets, something from Jeremiah: ‘THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.’ And in black thread to boot.

Jeanette’s behaviour begins to affect her classmates, and a couple of the other mothers descend upon the school:

I did upset the children. Not intentionally, but effectively. Mrs Sparrow and Mrs Spencer came to school one day all fluffed up with rage; they came at playtime. I saw them with their handbags and hats, revolving up the concrete, lips pursed. Mrs Spencer had her gloves on. (pg. 39)

I love that quote, and it shows how effectively Winterson captures an image and mood in just a few lines. It’s all handbags-at-dawn, and small details such as Mrs Spencers’ gloves really add something to the scene.

Mrs Vole, the headmistress, tackles Jeanette about her preoccupation with God, accusing her of ‘talking about Hell to young minds.’

It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. (pg. 42)

But when Mrs Vole writes to Jeanette’s mother asking her to moderate the young girl, the mother is not in the least concerned. If anything, mother considers it a victory:

Mrs Vole kept her promise. She wrote to my mother, explaining my religious leanings, and asking my mother if she would moderate me. My mother hooted and took me to the cinema as a treat. They were showing The Ten Commandments […]

After that day, everyone at school avoided me. If it had not been for the conviction that I was right, I might have been very sad. As it was I just forgot about it, did my lessons as best I could, which wasn’t that well, and thought about our church. I told my mother how things were once.

‘We are called to be apart,’ she said. (pg 42)

The situation leaves Jeanette feeling exposed and lonely at school, and as the years pass she takes comfort in a couple of friendships. She develops a bond with Elsie Norris, a kind lady and fellow member of the church who keeps an eye out for Jeanette and plays with her when the young girl’s mother is absent or absorbed in the church. And then Jeanette meets Melanie, a girl who works on the local fish stall, and she realises her feelings for Melanie run deep:

She stroked my head for a long time, and then we hugged and it felt like drowning. Then I was frightened but couldn’t stop. There was something crawling in my belly. I had an octopus inside me. (pg. 86)

When Jeanette decides to confide in her mother by revealing her feelings for Melanie, she is surprised by her mother’s initial reaction – the woman nods, appears calm and seems to have understood the situation. But what follows is painful and terrifying for Jeanette as she is exposed to the full wrath of the church, an institution that considers the girls’ relationship an example of ‘unnatual passions.’

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a story with a number of themes. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young girl trying to find her place in a world when she seems ‘different’ to many of her peers – different in terms of her religious upbringing and to some extent her sexuality, too. But the novel also explores how difficult it is for Jeanette to live up to the expectations of her mother, especially when these expectations are so extreme. How can she when her mother thinks the following?

It all seemed to hinge around the fact that I loved the wrong sort of people. Right sort of people in every respect except this one; romantic love for another woman was a sin. (pg. 125)

I absolutely loved Oranges; it’s so well written, absorbing and full of slightly wry humour, too. For some reason, I was expecting it to be quite bitter, full of anger and rage, but it isn’t at all. Winterson writes with a great deal compassion and humanity. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so funny, so much so that it had me laughing out loud on a few occasions. I’ll finish with an extract from one those moments, Pastor Finch and his demon bus:

The first time that Melanie came to our church was not a success. I’d forgotten that Pastor Finch was visiting on his regional tour. He arrived in an old Bedford van with the terrified damned painted on one side and the heavenly host printed on the other. On the back doors and front bonnet he’d inscribed in green lettering, HEAVEN OR HELL? IT’S YOUR CHOICE. He was very proud of the bus, and told of the many miracles worked inside and out. Inside had six seats, so that the choir could travel with him, leaving enough room for musical instruments and a large first-aid kit in case the demon combusted somebody.

‘What do you do about the flames?’ we asked.

‘I use an extinguisher,’ he explained.

We were very impressed. (pgs. 81-82)

It was Max’s review that prompted me to read Oranges, book 5/20 in my #TBR20.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy.

57 thoughts on “Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (book review)

  1. lonesomereadereric

    Great review and those quotes are good! It’s interesting how we have prior expectations about a text because of something like a tv show or movie that’s come out of a book we haven’t read. It makes those surprises like the humour and tenderness you found reading this more rewarding. I read Oranges and many other Winterson books in college and haven’t read anything by her for several years. You make me want to revisit this and I’ve been meaning to read her book Why Be Happy When you Could Be Normal for a while.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric – so many great quotes to choose from here! I think it would be an interesting book to revisit to see if your impressions have changed over time. I kind of wish I’d read it before now but then there are so many books I seem to have missed over the years.

      Why be Happy is sitting in my TBR, but I’ll probably leave it for a few months just to put a bit of breathing space between the two. I’ve heard great things about it though.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh, yes – some of those scenes are very painful and distressing. That’s the thing I recall from the TV adaptation, and it’s almost certainly one of the reasons why I shied away from reading Winterson for so many years. I’m very glad I finally got to it though.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    This meant a lot to me in my youth – as it will to any child trying to rebel against parental authority and ‘brainwashing’, regardless of whether religion or lesbianism plays a role. Like Eric, I’ve been meaning to read Winterson’s memoirs and some of her more recent work, so this might give me an impetus.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad this struck a chord with you, Marina. You’re right, there are some really meaningful experiences/messages for life in here: as you say, the importance of standing up to authority figures and extremist behaviour. Also, I like the way it explores what it means to be true to your own feelings even if that means you stand out from the crowd in some way.

      I have her memoir, Why be Happy, so it’s in the pile (although I’ll probably leave it for a while just to put a bit of distance between the two). I’d love to know what you think of it though…

      Reply
  3. poppypeacockpens

    It’s one of those ones I’ve often pondered over but for some reason resisted, but after your review it’s definitely going on my wishlist… Never saw the TV adaptation, did it go by the same name?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great; I loved this book and wish I’d read it before now. (How many books do you have in your post #TBR20 wishlist now? 15 in mine and that’s after a bit of pruning!)

      Yes, the TV adaptation has the same title, and it’s quite timely as Geraldine McEwan, who died this weekend, played the mother. It’s an excellent series, but I’d recommend reading the book first.

      Reply
      1. poppypeacockpens

        I’ve lost count – need to take a look at the wishlist & suspect pruning will be needed too – think I need some form of criteria to help prioritise any future purchases… Mind, since I ‘landed on a snakes head’ I’m back on No1 😭😭😭 so not an imminent issue

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Going all the way back to square #1 might be a little too harsh. A three-book penalty for each lapse, perhaps? We should ask Eva to set a principle on this…

          Reply
  4. susanosborne55

    I think you would very much enjoy Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal after reading Oranges, Jacqui. It’s an unflinching, painfully honest scrutiny of Winterson’s relationship with her adoptive mother.

    Reply
  5. gertloveday

    I second Susan’s comment about Why be happy…. I loved Oranges.. too. I saw Jeanette Winterson interviewed on TV when she was here recently for a book festival, and she came across as a very endearing person – wry and funny as you say, self-deprecating, original.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to know, everyone seems to love Why Be Happy! I’m looking forward to reading it, although I’ll leave it for a while just to put some breathing space between the two. I’d love to hear Winterson speak about her books especially having got to know her a little through Oranges. She sounds very engaging…that wry humour really came through to me.

      Reply
  6. Fleur in her World

    I can’t quite believe that this book is thirty years old. It’s so long since I read it that the details have all slipped away, but I remember being taken with it and I am so tempted to read again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funny how time passes without us quite realising…it doesn’t feel like thirty years, does it? This would be an interesting one to reread as I wonder whether impressions might change with age and life experience. I kind of wish I’d read it on its release…

      Reply
  7. hastanton

    Gosh reading this review brought back so many memories . Oranges had such a big impact on me when I read it years ago. More recently I read her autobiog which obvs deals with the ‘real life’ situation . Great review

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Helen. That’s interesting – Marina mentioned something similar as Oranges meant a lot to her when she read it in her youth. I wish I’d read it many years ago, but glad to have got to it now. I’m keen to read the memoir, Why Be Happy, and it’s in my TBR (although I’ll leave it for a bit just to let Oranges settle).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, it’s always interesting to hear a different view! Life would be terribly boring if we all liked the same things. I’ll take a look at your blog for your review, Kim.

      Reply
  8. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    I love well written character and family studies. The situation illustrated in this book sounds like some real life families that I know, which adds to my level of interest.

    Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui and the book doesn’t sound anything like I expected, and like I might enjoy it very much! It’s scary how much parents can emotionally mess up a child…. Plus, it does sound funny! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. There’s a lot of wry humour in the book, and it’s quite different to my memories of the TV adaptation (probably my patchy memory, but I was left with an image of one or two rather terrifying scenes). I’ve a feeling you’d like Winterson should you ever get the urge.

      Reply
  10. Naomi

    This sounds like something I would like. The themes of being different/going against the flow/standing up to the ones who mean the most to you are always interesting to explore. And, it sounds like she has done it in a way that is not too heavy and depressing. I will have to look into this one, as well as her other books. I haven’t read anything by her, although I do have her most recent memoir on my list. Nice review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! The humour works really well, making it an accessible and engaging read (for me, anyway). This could have been a fictional version of one of those misery memoirs full of bitterness and rage, but it’s not like that at all. I loved it; it’s much warmer and more affectionate than I thought it might be.

      I have her memoir too – several others have read and recommended it, so it sounds like a great book.

      Reply
  11. Guy Savage

    I read this a few years back (and liked it) and also saw the film. This is one of those instances when I preferred the film as the medium really worked for the material.

    Reply
  12. Gemma

    I read this a couple of years ago and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t make a huge impact on me at the time. But your review has made me see the book in a new light and now I feel I want to revisit it. Loved the quotes you used :)

    Reply
  13. Bellezza

    I don’t like it when I hear of the church alienating people by unacceptance; that is the exact opposite of how I see Christ who specifically walked with the “tax collectors and sinners”, who came to save the broken-hearted. It’s tragic when people feel turned away, or beaten up emotionally, by a church that accuses rather than loves, which sounds like something that is happening in this book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think part of the problem here, Bellezza, is that Jeanette’s mother and the pastor see everything as either black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. There isn’t much room for tolerance or a more nuanced interpretation of the scriptures. By the end of the book, I think Jeanette feels that she can’t live her life this way and that much of what the church preaches doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The church doesn’t look good here, but the story is set several years ago (it feels like the 1950s/1960s) and Jeanette’s story might be quite unusual. It sounds as though your own experience of the church is very different to that described here, much more welcoming and accepting…I’m glad to hear that.

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    I read a couple of early Winterson’s in the late eighties (The Passion and Sexing the Cherry) but didn’t really take to them. I suspect I should have started with this. Your review does make me think I should give her another try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oranges really surprised me, Grant. I thought it was great (and bonus from #TBR20 it’s been lurking on shelves for a year or so). It might be worth giving it a try…thirty years is a long time.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear, and I’m glad my post brought back some fond memories! Yes, I enjoyed that aspect too, the way Jeanette develops her own views and begins to question the teachings of the church and the authority figures in her life. All power to her.

      Reply
  15. Scott W.

    Nicely done review, Jacqui – I’ll echo Grant by noting that though I read a few Winterson novels years ago and don’t recall being particularly taken by them (except for one that took place in Venice; I’ll read anything about Venice), you make me think I should perhaps give her another try. The title of this one, alas, has always stuck in my craw. I react to it the way an Andrea Martin character on SCTV reacted to Petula Clark’s song Don’t Sleep in the Subway: DUH! Don’t wash your face with Clorox! Don’t shave with a ginsu knife! Of course oranges aren’t the only fruit!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Scott. Interesting to hear you had a similar experience to Grant. I wonder whether Winterson is one of those authors who divides people, although it sounds as if you liked the Venice one (The Passion?). Well, I thought Oranges was great, much warmer and more affectionate than I’d expected and funny with it. Max enjoyed it too, but I can see why some people didn’t click with it.

      I know what you mean about the title…that said, oranges feature quite heavily in the story (the mother has a thing about them) so I can see why Winterson chose it. Funnily enough, I caught a radio interview with Winterson where someone asked her about favourite fruits…turns out she likes oranges, but bananas are top of the pile.

      Reply
  16. heavenali

    Lovely review. I loved this too when I read it years ago. I thought the voices of both central characters was very strongly resonant. I’ve only read one other Winterson book, her autobiography Why be happy when you could be normal, it’s naturally very reminiscent of this novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. Glad you enjoyed it too; both voices are very clear and distinctive, aren’t they? I have Why Be Happy, looking forward to reading it.

      Reply
  17. Caroline

    I’ve read “Why be happy . . . ” a year or so ago and it was such a harrowing book that I couldn’t just move on to this one. I really like her writing style. It’s amazing that she managed to be this creative and free herself, in spite of that mother.
    I think it’s probabaly even better to read this first and then the memoir.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s one of the reasons why I started with the fictional one before trying Why Be Happy. Likewise, I really warmed to her writing. As you say, it’s great that she managed to free herself and find her voice in this way. I wonder whether she turned to books and stories as an escape from what was happening around her at the time…

      Reply
  18. Emma

    First Max, now you and Guy liked it too: it sounds more and more as a must-read. :-)
    Your review reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible. Have you read it? It also shows the damage that black-and-white religion can do.
    Would you say that Jeannette’s mother is not so bright and thus fails to see life’s nuances?

    I like Marina’s comment about the difficulty to live in a family where the parents are strongly involved into something. I figure that if your parents are die-hard ecologists and refuse to own a car or go to McDonald’s for ideological reasons, the child probably feels out-of-place too. I also wonder how it was to have communist parents in France in the 1960s…Must have been something else too. (but at least there you were not the only one to grow up in that environment)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! It is very good, surprisingly good as I’d forgotten about the humour that Max mentioned in his review. I haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible — it’s Barabra Kingsolver, isn’t it? — in fact I’ve yet to read any of her books. Sounds as if there are some parallels between the two.

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jeanette’s mother isn’t bright (she seems rather knowing at times), but I think she’s determined and dogmatic. She definitely sees things in black-and-white terms though and she’s not very good at tuning in to other people’s emotions (or she chooses to ignore them if they get in the way of her beliefs).

      Yes, I liked Marina’s comment too, and it sounds as if Oranges was an memorable book from her younger days. It takes courage to stand up to any authority figures, especially if you feel different to your peers in some way.

      France in the 1960s, that must have been a tumultuous time…

      Reply
  19. evastalker

    Superb review. I’ve had this on my shelves for a couple of years & really must read it soon. I love what you say about expecting it to be bitter and angry and finding a different book – that’s exactly what I’ve been expecting of it, too.

    Reply
  20. Max Cairnduff

    I’m really glad you liked it. It does have a marvellous sense of humour doesn’t it? I also think though it has a lot of love in it, there’s actually a lot of affection for the mother who could easily have just been made a monster.

    The Passion if anything is even better, but I think this is the one to start with.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really enjoyed it, Max. Loved the humour, and you’re absolutely right as I simply hadn’t expected it to be quite so warm and affectionate. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to it but there we go…

      I shall take a look at The Passion; it sounds as if you’ve reviewed it too.

      Reply
  21. The Little Reader Library

    I remember watching episodes of this when it was on tv but I’ve never read the book. I’m glad you had such a good reaction to it Jacqui. I would have imagined it being quite angry too, so it’s good that it was different and surprising.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny how a few of us seem to have formed that impression, but the book was much more generous and affectionate than I’d feared it might be. I thought it was a terrific novel.

      Reply
  22. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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