Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical novel about her upbringing by an evangelical Christian mother in England and her coming out as a lesbian. As with my previous review, The Golden Notebook, an underlying theme is alienation, a breaking up of the whole person and an attempt at putting it all back together again. In this case, the author struggles to reconcile religion, family and sexual preference.
The main character, also named Jeanette, tells her story in retrospect and focuses on her adolescent and early teen years, which seem to have occurred in the early 1970s. Both Jeanettes were adopted, and it seems that both Jeanettes’ mothers wished to groom their daughters to become missionaries. Novel Jeanette seems not to have had a problem with this. Her mother was a leader in their church, spoke with conviction and authority, and was respected by the members of their circle even if she didn’t have many friends to speak of. Jeanette was an outsider, too, and writes of her school days with some humor. Her discussions of hell and redemption seem to have been off-putting to other students and teachers. In the novel, Jeanette creates a sampler for her sewing class that reads: THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED. (The real Jeanette had this on her gym bag.) Despite repeated attempts to fit in and win prizes, Jeanette comes up short: an Easter egg diorama of Brunhilda confronting her father, a scene from “A Street Car Named Desire” in pipe cleaners, an embroidered cushion cover featuring Bette Davis in “Now Voyager,” all failed to win the expected accolades. She notes that, “This tendency towards the exotic has brought me many problems, just as it did for William Blake.”
While Jeanette didn’t fit in among her peers, she did seem to feel some connection to her mother’s church and as she matured, Jeanette also began to preach and lead. While a male pastor was recognized as the true leader, he was often off on mission trips and so the daily business of running the church and winning converts was left to a group of women led by Jeanette’s mother. When Jeanette falls in love with a girl named Melanie and starts an affair, its discovery leads to upheaval in all parts of her life. Her mother is horrified and disgusted and brings in the pastor to conduct an exorcism of Jeanette. Two women in the church circle, Elsie and Miss Jewsbury, are kinder toward Jeanette, but it’s clear to Jeanette that her love puts her at odds with her family and her church for reasons she cannot understand. “…I loved the wrong sort of people. Right sort of people in every respect except one; romantic love for another woman was a sin. ‘Aping men,’ my mother had said with disgust.” Ultimately, another affair leads to a final break.
The organization of this short novel is of note for a couple of reasons. First, each chapter is named for a book of the Old Testament, and I’m sure if I knew my Bible better, I would understand the significance of each. But generally speaking, the Old Testament seems to be be much more judgmental than, say, the New Testament is, and judgment is a theme that runs throughout the novel. “‘The Lord forgives and forgets,’ the pastor told me. Perhaps The Lord does, but my mother didn’t.” Jeanette’s mother, like many even today, believed that her daughter’s sexuality was a matter of choice and judged her daughter harshly. “My mother has always given me problems because she is enlightened and reactionary, at the same time. …she believed that you made people and yourself what you wanted.” For her mother, anyone could be saved if they so chose, and Jeanette was choosing sin in her eyes.
Second, Jeanette interrupts her narrative occasionally with references to tales of quests and leaving home, such as the story of Percival and the story of Winnet. Themes of loyalty, betrayal and homecoming run through them and the novel overall. After her final break with her mother and church, Jeanette finds work in a variety of places and leaves her home town. She does try to come back and offers this view on that:
When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing your self. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time.
Parts of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit are quite funny, but ultimately it is a sober tale of becoming alienated from what was dear to you because of who you are at the core, because of ignorance and betrayal. While Jeanette holds on to the possibility of people changing themselves for the better (redemption), she also sees that “…to change something that you do not understand is the true nature of evil.” This message is as appropriate today as it was in 1985 when the novel was published, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more loving of one’s neighbor without judgment while working on one’s own personal conversion? It seems rather the point of Christianity.