Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is one of the quintessential queer coming-of-age novels (well, more like a barely veiled memoir, but okay). It tells the story of a young Jeanette, growing up in a strict religious household in a small English town. Because of her upbringing, she has trouble fitting in both at school and in the general community. Her mother bears this outsider status as a badge of honour, but young Jeanette sometimes feels frustrated that some people don’t understand her. And then she falls in love with another girl.
The first part of the novel is dominated by Jeanette’s mother, a powerful figure who has her heart set on her daughter becoming a missionary. She has even rewritten the plot of Jane Eyre to fit this dream:
Jane Eyre was her favourite non-Bible book, and she read it to me over and over again, when I was very small. I couldn’t read it, but I knew where the pages turned. Later, literate and curious, I had decided to read it for myself. A sort of nostalgic pilgrimage. I found out, that dreadful day in a back corner of the library, that Jane doesn’t marry St John at all, that she goes back to Mr Rochester. It was like the day I discovered my adoption papers while searching for a pack of playing cards. I have never since played cards, and I have never since read Jane Eyre.
Jeanette’s mother is easily the most intriguing character in the book, and it is almost a shame when she has to make room for Jeanette’s coming out plot. She takes reality and reworks it until she can make sense of it, smoothing out all the uncomfortable rough patches and taking out whatever makes her uncomfortable. She can be cold and harsh, but there seems to be a passion underneath that she is desperate to suppress. She thinks that she was foolish and weak and made mistakes in her youth, but now she is determined that her daughter will become the shining saint she failed to be.
The novel is split up into a number of parts, each named after a Bible book (early childhood is Genesis, and so on). However, Winterson also weaves Arthurian legend into the plot, putting her own journey side by side with the trials of the knights. Personally, I felt like this connection was not as powerful as it could have been – which, incidentally, sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. It is clear that Winterson knows how to write and some passages are quite vivid, but for me, it lacked the punch I was expecting to find.
For one, when Jeanette risks everything for the girl she has fallen in love with, we know very little about the object of her affection. Compared to the many pages she has devoted to describing the character of her mother, this girl is only painted in the roughest of brush strokes. You could say that we don’t need to know more; what really matters is how Jeanette feels about her, right? Right, but I feel like I would have felt the impact of this crisis more if I not only knew exactly what she was risking, but also who she decides to risk it for. Again, you could argue that it wasn’t really about this specific girl but about the fact that she falls in love with girls in general. Still, personally, I wish Winterson would have taken the time to flesh out this relationship more.
This is one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did. I can see the appeal, and there were definitely parts that I think were really well-written. However, in the end, it failed to hit me where I wanted it to hurt. It’s almost like there were some crucial parts missing that would have tied the whole thing together for me. Good, but not great.