Bessie reviews Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson

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Gut Symmetries is a beautifully written love triangle involving two physicists and a poet. It’s a romance between science and mythology. Jove and Stella seem like an odd couple, the scientist and the poet, who knew each other since they were children and are destined to be together. Jove and Alice look like an obvious story, the older man and the young pupil. These two pairings seem like things we should understand — things get interesting when Stella meets Alice. Instead of jealousy and anger the two women begin a relationship of their own.

Jove is a self centered man, who never imagined the women in his life existing beyond him. Stella and Alice had expectations about who the other was going to be, but they surprise each other. As their relationship blossoms they move away from Jove’s influence.

There is one line from the first time Alice and Stella first had sex that I really appreciated. Winterson writes that, “Desiring her I felt my own desirability. It was an act of power but not power over her. I was my own conquest.” It really resonated as to why women appreciating each other can be a huge thing in a patriarchal male gaze world.

The beginning was slow, but it picks up as it starts to explore the world around the characters, how they got to the tangled mess of their relationship, and how their lives got them to this place. Winterson starts catching us up with action that has already happened. The plot doesn’t provide much forward momentum until close to the end.

Winterson comments on the nature of the novel that she’s creating. As her character relays her own past, Winterson writes, “I should have preferred it to be neater, tauter, the pace of a mystery, the thrill of a romance. What I had were fragments of colored glass held up to the light . . . This is my signal flashing towards you.” They’re absolutely beautiful fragments.

The ending gets a bit gory, but always wrapped in beautiful imagery. The prose is consistently wonderful. Winterson uses the language of science and mythology to draw up an intricate world.

The chapters get their titles from tarot cards. Winterson juxtaposes the ways science and mysticism think about how the world is bound together. She incorporates physics into her poetry. She uses superstring theory as metaphor, and the novel gets its title from GUT symmetries, a concept that I’ll admit to not absorbing the science of. She discusses planetary movements in terms of both science and astrology, all getting to the idea that the universe works in a way that is larger than any one person.

Stella and Alice and Jove are their own actors, but also their families and heritage. The world she describes works within systems. There are patterns that are older than people, bound to repeat, or maybe not. Winterson writes that:

“In the Torah, the Hebrew ‘to know,’ often used in a sexual context, is not about facts but about connections. Knowledge, not as accumulation, but as charge and discharge. A release of energy from one site to another. Instead of a hoard of certainties, bug-collected, to make me feel secure, I can give up taxonomy and invite myself to the dance: the patterns, rhythms, multiplicities, paradoxes, shifts, currents, cross-currents, irregularities, irrationalities, geniuses, joints, pivots, worked over time, and through time, to find the lines of thought that still transmit.”

In Gut Symmetries Winterson explores the dance between a world with rules and repetition, and a world with spontaneity and love change who people are.

Rachel reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

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Published in 1985 by Jeanette Winterson, the classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit hits home on a young girl coming of age and beginning to question her sexuality.

The protagonist, Jeanette, has been adopted by stringent Pentecostal evangelists. As she grows up, she is expected to one day be a missionary. Her mother in particular pushes Jeanette to pursue this dream. Together, the family listens on the radio to missionaries converting unbelievers, attend church for intense sermons, and learn as much from the Bible as they can. Jeanette is an outcast at school because her beliefs set her apart from the other kids; her only true friend is Elsie, an elderly woman who encourages Jeanette in her work. One day however, Jeanette meets Melanie, and begins to feel the first stirrings of attraction. This causes uproar in her family and community, leading Jeanette to make her own decisions about her future.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a mixture of humor and sadness as the story follows Jeanette in her journey to awakening. And the journey is full of ignorance and a lack of understanding. Jeanette loves God and Melanie, but her pastor tells her she cannot love them both. She is surrounded by people who do not understand her; her mother and community believe she has allowed the devil to take her with “unnatural passions.” It was heartbreaking at times to read of how Jeanette was treated by people she had known her whole life. The homophobic remarks were infuriating. People fear what they do not understand, and the characters in this book were no exception.

Winterson brilliantly captured Jeanette’s struggles to find her own place while reconciling her attraction to women. As the novel progresses, Jeanette begins to question her beliefs and challenge her society’s rules. The reader can see her getting more independent with every page. Her growth from a young girl to a mature woman exploring the world around her was liberating in a way.

Throughout the book, there are stories interwoven with the main plot. These stories hold a message relevant to what Jeanette is going through. Every chapter of Oranges is marked by the name of a Bible story, starting with Genesis and ending with Ruth. My favorite chapter was Deuteronomy. Though short, in it Jeanette ponders questions about history and how easily people change it to match their beliefs.

Lesbianism is not the main subject touched on in the novel; religion and questioning are at the forefront. It’s no surprise; Jeanette’s beliefs are important to her and she built a lot of her dreams and plans on it. She works hard to make sense of her faith and the world around her. That makes her the strongest character of the book in my opinion, and more endearing.

I can see why Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic; the novel prompts readers to question society, religion, and prejudice. Some may find the subjects too heavy, but this book has important messages, and should be read by everyone, gay or straight.

Karelia Stetz-Waters reviews Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

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I was somewhat disappointed to learn that my all-time favorite lesbian writer had released a new memoir.  That’s not my usual reaction to book releases. It’s just that Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal promised to cover approximately the same time period as her first memoir, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Why Be Happy also promised to set the record straight about what was and was not true in Oranges.

To be fair, Winterson explains in Why Be Happy that Oranges is not a memoir. It is a novel about a girl named Jeanette who has a childhood very, very similar to Winterson’s. In graduate school, I would have jumped on the postmodern implications of this statement. In the real world, I just call that a memoir with embellishments.

Either way, I loved Oranges. I read it when I was sixteen, the year I came out. It was the first lesbian book I read. It made me want to become a writer. I did not want Winterson to set the record straight and tell us, as she does, that her life sucked a little bit more than it did in Oranges.

Moreover, the second half of Why Be Happy is about how Winterson’s unhappy childhood continued to haunt and hurt her in adulthood. I wanted to think that Winterson, my hero, my role model, had come farther in her emotional life. Almost thirty years after Oranges, she was still writing about what a cold woman her mother was. I was mad. I wanted something different.

Still, the psychologists say that to be truly angry at someone, you have to truly love them.

I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing. I love her as much now as I did at sixteen. I love Why Be Happy as much as I love Oranges.

It’s her sentences. Lots of writers have good plots or clever premises. No one can craft a sentence like Winterson.  It’s not that they are particularly long, complex, or laden with adjectives. Just the opposite. Her sentences are so clear, so sharp, so cold, like diamond stars hung in the darkness of the postmodern cosmos, their brightness a conversation with the unspoken space that surrounds them.

She is that good.

Perhaps the price is her happiness. The authorial voice in Why Be Happy is hopeful. She is striving. She is quick to say that she always embraces life. However she is still tormented. Pain and loss cling to every page. It is that intensity that I loved at sixteen. It’s that intensity that I love in Why Be Happy.

It’s the reason why Winterson can do what no one should attempt: two memoirs about the same story. I was lucky to get to read these books as they should be read. One at fifteen when one needs heroes. One at nearly 40 when one knows what heroes really look like.

By Karelia Stetz-Waters
www.kareliastetzwaters.com

Casey reviews Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson

Although Jeanette Winterson’s 1997 novel Gut Symmetries is a book about a bisexual love triangle, it’s nothing like what you might expect from that description.  For one thing, it’s not a straight forward narrative of boy meets girl, girl meets girl.  You know from early on that Alice, the main character, falls in love with both Jove and his wife Stella.  So, when the two women finally begin their affair, it’s lovely, but not surprising.  This is not a ‘read-to-find-out-what-happens-next’ kind of novel.  Rather, it’s a read-to-find-the-next-beautiful-piece-of-writing kind of book.  Although there are some beautiful passages early on in Jove and Alice’s love affair, it’s Alice and Stella who really capture you as a couple.

What is really stunning about all of the descriptions of love is the way that Winterson weaves together musings on love with those about the nature of living and being.  You see, both Jove and Alice are physicists, and this fact is not insignificant.  It allows Winterson to describe in gorgeous language how the mysteries of the universe are beautiful, and eerily similar to the mysteries of love and desire.  She writes: “Perhaps it seems surprising that physicists seek beauty but in fact they have no choice.”  This is because when you go far enough, science is a kind of poetry, and love is a kind of physics.  As Winterson chronicles these strange and passionate love affairs, the beauty and mystery of the cosmos become undistinguishable from that of love.  She writes: “from the music of the spheres a perfect universe is formed.  Lover and beloved pass into one another identified by sound.”  My favourite of these passages, though, is this one:

Walk with me.  Walk the 6, 000, 000, 000, 000 miles of travelled light, single year’s journey of illumination, ship miles under the glowing keel.  In the long frost the sky brightens and the rim of the earth is pierced by sharp stars.  After the leaf-fall the star-fall, the winter shedding of too much light.  Walk the seen and the unseen.  What can be rendered visible and what cannot.

Like a lot of Jeanette Winterson’s work, her novel Gut Symmetries manages to be both contemporary and mythological.  Stella tells us, for example, that her “mother, big with child, had strange longings; she wanted to eat diamonds.”  After retrieving the diamonds when they exit Stella’s mother’s system, her father’s friends (diamond dealers, you see) discover one is missing.  Stella, apparently, is carrying this diamond inside her.  Alice’s father, after marrying her mother, promptly tells her he will not sleep with her until he is made director of a line at his job; years later, he abruptly flies home to England from New York to do so.

These two remarkable women meet in New York City for dinner, after Stella receives a letter telling her that her husband Jove is having an affair with fellow physicist Alice.  Shortly after their first encounter Alice tells us that “Stella turned towards me and crumpled my heart in her hand”; she asks Alice, “‘Do you fall in love often?’”  When they sleep together, Winterson cleverly reworks that old Freudian theory of homosexuality as narcissism through her description of Stella’s experience:

Her breasts as my breasts, her mouth as my mouth, were more than Narcissus hypnotised by his own likeness.  Everybody knows how the story changes when he disturbs the water.  I did disturb the water and the perfect picture broke.  You see, I could have rested there beside her, perhaps forever, it felt like forever, a mirror confusion of bodies and sighs, undifferentiated, she in me, me in she and no longer exhausted by someone else’s shape over mine.  And I had not expected such intense physical pleasure.  Why then did I trouble the surface?  It was not myself I fell in love with it was her.

Although this twisted love story takes an odd and grotesque turn near the end—you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you—I finished the novel with memories of Winterson’s exquisite deliberations on the nature of love, desire, and, dare I say it, the meaning of life.  I was particularly left with this heartening statement:  “Capacity for love in its higher forms seems to be peculiarly human although even in humans it is still peculiar.  This love suggests there is something beyond self-interest.”

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

I am not a fan of purple prose (or anything even slightly resembling it); I much prefer stories being told as they are because I am very much a non-fiction kind of person. I didn’t expect to become a fan of Jeanette Winterson, for she has spoken of her discovery that “plot was meaningless to [her]” and that “[her] love affair was with language, not with what it said.” Neither did I expect to like Written on the Body much when I opened the book and was greeted by this:

I am thinking of a certain September: Wood pigeon Red Admiral Yellow Harvest Orange Night. You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.

That’s not to say I didn’t like this quote, however. I did. Just a couple of paragraphs down (get the book!) and I was hooked in a way I could not have anticipated, in spite of the run-on sentences and quixotic references. I can’t really describe Winterson’s writing – and I apologise for this, because I realise this is part of the point of reviews – but it is at times sharp and witty, clever and observant, and unfailingly flowery and rich. I might call it self-indulgent, at times, but never quite lyrical; there is an awkward pace to her words, like the words are tumbling out of the narrator rather than flowing as you would expect a love story to. (Perhaps I am mistaken in labelling a “love story,” though, because it is very much more a one-sided narrative that often appears to be about love itself instead of any one particular love.) I will admit that I did skim through some parts, especially the latter part of the book, and I would be perfectly comfortable with it being a hundred pages shorter but I think this is more my impatience and discomfort with decorated prose rather than a fault of the book itself. I can imagine others enjoying this much more than me.

She nodded. ‘When I saw you two years ago I thought you were the most beautiful creature male or female I had ever seen.’

The key twist – or gimmick, if you’re so inclined – of this book is that you know practically nothing of the narrator. In particular, readers are kept guessing at the narrator’s gender and sexuality. I loved this concept, and I loved reading a narrative about love and infatuation and sex without gender thrown in the mix. It was never an issue that took away from the story and was instead a persistent curiosity that kept me turning the pages.

There is something significant I think you must understand before reading this book: because the picture of the narrator is so incomplete, your biases will influence the way you read this book very strongly. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, and which side you fall on could change on any given day. I did not for a moment feel that the narrator was anything but female and young – I could’ve imagined it, but I was sure then that I was picking up on a fair bit of misandry and stereotypically youthful foolishness (if I am to be allowed some amount of ageism here) – but I have heard of those who thought otherwise. Experiments with gender aside, this is still a love narrative first and foremost and one of the most intense, obsessive kind, nonetheless: I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I were feeling particularly alone or nauseated by coupledom (see: Valentine’s Day). You will be, after all, essentially listening to someone go on and on about a newfound love interest, albeit with more fluency and fluorish than I’m sure your real life infatuated friends can manage in their varying states of enamour. Finally, if you are conservative, or maybe just squeamish? Stay far, far away.

All in all, I would definitely recommend reading this book. It’s not for everyone, but I’d say it’s worth a read because it’s different and something that you might just enjoy exploring.

In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you. […] Who writes these books? Do they really think, those quiet concerned counsellors, that two feet of linen-bound stuffing will assuage a broken heart? I don’t want a pillow I want your moving breathing flesh. I want you to hold my hand in the dark, I want to roll on to you and push myself into you. When I turn in the night the bed is continent-broad. There is endless space where you won’t be.

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!


Guest Lesbrarian: Heather

We’ve got another Guest Lesbrarian today: Heather. She’s reviewing Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a lesbrary classic.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

I only recently discovered GoodReads (I know, it’s like I’ve been living under a rock!), and I’ve been reading lots of their lists.  It occurred to me that perhaps as a good lesbian I should try reading more gay fiction.  I’ve read some, of course (including Stone Butch Blues, which I shared a little bit about in my last Top Ten Post)  But really,  if I don’t want to have to give back my toaster oven I should have a passing knowledge of important works in the GLBT genre.

With that in mind I ordered Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.  It is really a roman a clef of the author’s early years in Northern England.  The main character, Jeanette, is the adopted daughter of a fundamentalist Christian couple. Her mother adopted her in order to raise her up to give to the Lord as a missionary for His cause.  From early days, however, Jeanette shows that she is her own person and will not be forced into someone else’s ideas about what she should be.  As she grows up, she becomes  more and more rebellious-and she falls in love.  With a GIRL!  Let’s just say that her relationship with her mother really starts to go downhill after the failed exorcism…that’s right, they tried to exorcise the gay right out of her!

Winterson has a dry, witty sense of humor that makes what could be a tragic story of betrayal and loss into something altogether more powerful.  At not one point in the story did Jeanette doubt that God meant her to be the way she was.  The people in her church loved her, thought she had a calling to preaching and missionary work-until they found out she was gay.  Suddenly, the leadership decided that maybe women were getting above their true place in the church, and should no longer be allowed to preach.  Apparently Jeanette’s love for Katy convinced them that she was trying to be a man.  But not once did Jeanette waver in her belief that what she was and how she felt was as natural as loving the Lord, which she did with fervor.  Usually reading about religious fundamentalists makes me a little twitchy, but Winterson handled them in such a way that while I completely disagree with almost everything about the way they view life and God, I couldn’t help but accept and respect their humanity.  Jeanette says, at one point in the book, that she loved the Lord-it was some of his followers that she had problems with. She eventually finds her way out of the insular world she was raised in, first through her prodigious imagination, and finally by physically moving to the big city.  But she can’t completely leave behind her mother and her religious fervor.  The book concludes with Jeanette going home for Christmas to find her mother perched by the ham radio, networking with other born-again Christians for prayer, support, and most of all the conversion of the rest of us Godless souls.  Despite the new life Jeanette has found for herself, it is almost like she is comforted somehow by the idea that while she is off in the world, her mother stays behind, fighting other people’s demons one prayer request at a time.  I guess this is probably true of all of us.  No matter how much we may try to separate ourselves from where we come from, the fact remains that we carry those people and experiences around with us into every new town, new job, or new relationship that we have.

Thanks, Heather! I adore Jeanette Winterson, it’s good to see her getting some reviews. If you want to check out Heather’s book blog, it’s Book Addict’s Book Reviews.

Buy Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit from your local bookstore on Indiebound.

Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or another Jeanette Winterson book? What did you think of it?

I’m always looking for more guest posts! If you’ve read a lesbrary (woman-loving-woman book) lately, go to the Guest Lesbrarians link and submit a review!

General Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with Lesbrary (queer women) reading, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first Lesbrary book you read. If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. Once upon a time, any books that had queer content had to demonstrate that they were not actually advocating for queerness, so they had to either go straight, die, or go crazy. Often a combination of these three. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgendered, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Teen

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia BrownriggPages for You

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumoured to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully). Just click on Guest Lesbrarians at the top.

Thanks for reading!