Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

I’d been meaning to read this book for years. Years. Maybe a decade. You know what it’s like – you put a book onto your TBR and a decade later it’s still there, unread. I’m glad I finally got to it, but I’m not sure whether it quite lived up to my expectation.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is the first book by Jeanette Winterson I read. I first knew her from the “1001 books you must read before you die” list. I know she’s popular. I’ve even seen her in person at some Penguin’s event. I liked the sound of Oranges and I liked the title. I did enjoy reading it too, to a degree, but it felt like I wasn’t the targeted audience of the book. Let me explain.

Oranges is set somewhere in mid England, working class, Christian society. I’m not sure when it is set, but the book is published in 1985, so anytime before that I guess, the 60s or the 70s. If you know even a bit about this book, I think you’d already know that it is about a young woman coming out and coming to terms with her homosexuality. It’s semi-biographical, even the main character is called Jeanette.

It is a debut novel, and it read like one. I felt some parts were disjointed, but there were moments of brilliance. The story is interspersed with sort of fantastic tales (some from Arthurian legend?), which although I enjoyed reading, I had trouble connecting with the main story line. And this is where I put my case about not being the target audience. It seems Winterson wrote this book with “her own people” as the audience in mind – mid England, working class, Christian. I was raised in quite traditional Catholic/Christian family and society, so the religious references I understood, but it’s hard to imagine anyone raised in other religions to “get it”. The English working class references I probably missed in much greater degree.

The point of reading is the access and ability to “jump” into people’s lives completely different from yours, which is what’s amazing about it. So I’m wondering, as a writer, should you make an effort to include people outside of your core audience? I don’t know the answer to that. But reading this book I couldn’t avoid the lingering feeling of being out of the circle, an unexpected audience on the side peeking in, and probably only got 50% of the in-jokes.

So to conclude, no, the book was not quite what I expected. But some parts of the book made me want to read more books by Winterson, especially the fantasy part. I liked her humour. It also reminded me of Amy Tan’s books, which just like Oranges, focus on primarily mother daughter relationship, while father’s role remains minuscule, if any. As Jeanette ruminates in the book: “As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless.” – p126

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room was written by James Baldwin – an African American, published in 1956. I don’t know about you, but whenever I start on a new author, I look them up first, to know what they look like and their brief background. I often find strong correlation between who the author is and their work, so a kind of expectation is built. With Giovanni’s Room, it was all blown out of the water. I expected an African American story, but it is so far removed that I’m still struggling putting the image of the author next to his book in my mind.

For a start, the story is not even set in America, but in France. The protagonist is a white American called David – middle upper class, has an American girlfriend. David meets Giovanni – an Italian trying his luck in Paris, and later has a relationship with him. More important characters include a couple of older French men, whose names I had to google to discover the proper pronunciations: Jacques and Guillaume. They’re both wealthy, such that they have financial power over the young ones like David and Giovanni.

The quartet makes an interesting dynamic. In fact, the book opened my eyes to a very unfamiliar world to me: Parisian gay bars. There are all kinds of rules and expectations and power struggle. The older wealthy men are expected to treat (buy drinks and food), and in a way they’re seen as pathetic and desperate, being old and ugly. The young ones are dirt poor, but they have themselves to offer. If they play it well, giving hopes may just be enough to string the old men. Sex however is the ultimate prize.

David’s denial of his same-sex attraction is a major source of conflicts. There’s no race issue at all – it’s not that kind of book. I’d be very interested to read Baldwin’s other books and see whether it’s addressed somewhere else. It just seems odd to me that an African American writing in the 50s wasn’t writing about race issues.* It’s so amazing in many ways. Giovanni’s Room felt like it could’ve been written by a white French man. There are even healthy sprinkles of French words and sentences (that I had to look up to know what they mean). I’m intrigued.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A little anecdote: James Baldwin was mentioned in Capote the movie, which I watched while reading Giovanni’s Room. I didn’t plan it, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Capote and Baldwin lived and wrote in the same era, and both were gay.

* This is confirmed on Wiki, that mentions: “He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”.”

James Baldwin
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