Like most experimental stories, it took me a few days to decide if this one is terrible or brilliant. With experimental writing, there is always a fine line between “OMG this is awesome!” and “WTF is this?” Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is part autobiography, part essay, and part fairytale. These different elements don’t always play well together, but ultimately, I decided that the book is brilliant.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is based on the author’s life. The narrator, Jeanette, is adopted by an ultra-religious family and brought up to be a missionary. Her missionary plans are on-track until she falls in love with a girl. After a string of failed “cures” for her homosexuality, Jeanette leaves home at sixteen and strikes out on her own.
Jeanette Winterson hilariously explores the inconsistencies of the ultra-religious. Her mother wants to help people—which is a noble goal—but she doesn’t take the time to understand the people who she’s trying to help. For example, Jeanette’s mother starts the town’s first mission for “colored” people. When she cooks for the new converts, she dumps canned pineapple all over the food because she has the strange notion that pineapple is the only fruit that colored people eat. She has good intentions, but she severely lacks the ability to see the world from other people’s perspectives.
This misunderstanding extends to her daughter’s “unnatural passions.” When Jeanette fumbles her way into confessing that she isn’t attracted to men, her mother doesn’t try to understand her young daughter’s confusion. She just calls in an exorcist.
“As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless. I had never shown the slightest feeling for them, and apart from my never wearing a skirt, saw nothing else in common between us.” – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
“ . . . to change something you do not understand is the true nature of evil.” – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
My favorite parts of the book are the scenes of Jeanette as a child in school. She is an outsider. As a child, she has a fascination with Hell, and she can’t understand why her teachers and fellow students don’t share her obsession. My favorite scene in the book is when Jeanette makes a needlework sampler with a Bible quote and an image of people burning in Hell. She demands that the teacher enter her work in a competition, even though the teacher doesn’t think it’s a good idea. I’m not religious, but I could totally relate to Jeanette in those scenes. I had a serious obsession with animals as a child. My first grade teacher even told me to stop talking about animals in class and to stop writing about them in my journal. Child-me was very confused about why it was wrong to find animals interesting.
“My needlework teacher suffered from a problem of vision. She recognised things according to expectation and environment. If you were in a particular place, you expected to see particular things. Sheep and hills, sea and fish; if there was an elephant in the supermarket, she'd either not see it at all, or call it Mrs. Jones and talk about fishcakes. But most likely, she'd do what most people do when confronted with something they don't understand. Panic.” - Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
The overall tone of the book is pretty comical, but it’s still devastating when Jeanette loses her church family. Her religion keeps her from fitting in at school, and her homosexuality keeps her from fitting in at church. There aren’t many places in her world where she can be herself. This makes some of the secondary characters even more important. There are a few people in her life who take the time to understand her and offer help. She’s never completely alone, which is great.
Let’s talk about what didn’t work for me. I think I would have liked this book more if I was religious and British. Since I’m neither of those things, a lot of the references went over my head.
I also really dislike the fairytale parts of the story. I (kind of) understand why they’re in there. Jeanette is a very imaginative child, and the fairytales make the reader question the reliability of her narration. The fairytale characters’ quests also mirror Jeanette’s quest to accept herself. I understand the fairytales, but I didn’t care about them. Whenever the princes and princesses came up, I just groaned and waited impatiently to get back to the main storyline.
Other than the fairytales, I really like this book. If you’re interested in stories that are rich in symbolism, you need to read this one. I’d love to discuss the symbols, but this review is getting long, and I can sense your eyes glazing over with boredom. I’ll just say that I especially like how the author uses fruit to show conformity/rebellion/individuality/otherness. It’s clever and unexpected.
I can totally see why this quirky book is considered a modern classic. I’m glad I read it and will check out some of Jeanette Winterson’s other books.