To start by addressing the most obvious question - yes, the book's title is a metaphor. Yes, it is exactly that transparent metaphor you're thinking of. Acting as if oranges are the only fruit and trying to impose that belief on others is the equivalent - in silliness, not toxicity - of acting as if only one set of values and one way of life are the right ones. And yes, oranges and all the ways in which they're really Symbols for Something Else (mostly traditional-to-fundamentalist Christian values and heterosexuality) feature quite heavily in the narrative. The effect is not as bad as you might expect.
Story & Style
Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
Thus begins the story of Jeanette, the novel's heroine and occasionally very witty narrator. Jeanette is the adopted child of a fundamentalist Christian family, where all the devoutness is with the mother, the father mostly goes along or is absent. Jeanette's mother is a woman who rewrote the ending of Jane Eyre to make Jane end up with St. John. She rewrote the ending of Jane Eyre to make Jane end up with St. John. That should really tell you all you have to know about a person, but, in case you need more signs of her kookiness, there's plenty to choose from. She adopted Jeanette because she wanted to have a child to indoctrinate, but didn't want to have sex to that end. ("She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first," Jeanette dryly remarks.) She stores canned food for the impending Holocaust. Oh yes, and she thinks oranges are the only fruit.
Between the church and her mother's teachings, Jeanette's childhood is an eccentric one. Incidentally, I thought this was the strongest part of the book. The absurdity of the family's religious way of life is accentuated by the matter of fact tone in which Jeanette recounts her mother's peculiar habits. Issues of class and sexuality constantly impinge on the narrative. Jeanette's mother seeks the approval of a posh lady, who shops at Marks & Spencer (the story takes place in Britain). She frowns upon the lower-class neighbors, whom she simply calls Next Door. "Next Door had had another baby but there are so many of them Next Door we don't know whose it is," Jeanette writes in a school essay. The ladies that run the bookshop live together and have bought a double bed (but, as one character in a sexless heterosexual marriage points out, that might not mean anything). Jeanette's mother avoids going to bed with her husband. The church ladies alternate between eavesdropping on Next Door's having sex, and drowning out the noises with hymns.
All this could read bleakly, but it doesn't. The same goes for Jeanette's experiencing bullying and depression in school, where her deeply religious background is a liability with both the children and the teachers. Her efforts to gain appreciation are infused with the same sort of deadpan humor that makes everything so palatable in the first part of the book. But as Jeanette grows up, the tone changes. It becomes more serious, which should be fitting, given the events that unfold, but oddly enough, feels artificial. When there was a disconnect between the dry humor of the narrative and the awfulness of the events taking place, these events seemed at once lifelike and easy to accept, despite their absurdity. When the narrative tries to engage with later events in a more cerebral tone, it falls flat and the events themselves have an air of unreality. Correlated with the increasing length of the allegorical tales appended to the narrative (from mock fairy tales with feminist undertones to Arthurian myths), this seems to signal the fact that the narrator is too deeply affected by the events to intellectually process them and takes refuge in the allegorical narrative instead.
And the events are serious enough to justify this. Not to give away the entire story, but Jeanette falls in love with Melanie, a girl she brought to church. She seriously misjudges her mother's bigotry and tells her about her relationship with Melanie. From there the entire church learns of her "unnatural passions." As you might expect, ugliness, misogyny and homophobia ensue and Jeanette has to choose between the role society and her family laid out for her and the freedom to choose her own path. As she puts it, she has to choose between being a priest and being a prophet.
Just StyleThe central problem of the plot - that of choosing between an absolutist and a relativist view of the world, between the unique right way prescribed by Jeanette's mother and the church, and the myriad of ways in which a person can find happiness by expressing their inner self - is mirrored in the narrative style as well. This is what I'd call a softcore postmodern book. For one thing, the story is organized to mirror the first eight chapters of the Old Testament. Its chapters borrow their names from there (Genesis, Exodus etc.) References to the Bible abound. It's like an ironic appropriation of the biblical narrative, the same narrative the church members used to condemn Jeanette for failing to live up to their standards. This idea, that one can tell a story in a number of forms, also emerges from the way the "realistic" story is constantly doubled by fantastic retellings. There is no one right way to tell a story and all stories are constructions, are a way of imposing meaning on a messy reality.
You might be worried that this would be hard to read because of the postmodernist tones. Don't be. Like with the oranges metaphor, this book beats you over the head with its stylistic choices and what they mean. This to me was its only flaw. The Deuteronomy chapter where the narrator lectures us directly about what it means to tell your own story, what the relationship between history and power is etc. didn't impress me as clever and meta-fictional and whatnot. It just seemed... cheap. (And the
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the problem of this book's lack of subtlety takes second place to its readability and its humor. I'd recommend it for those qualities. If you're looking for a deliciously deadpan meditation on issues of class, religion and sexuality, give it a try. I might check out more of Winterson's work in the future.
*ETA: Oops, as Lit Lass pointed out below, this is actually a quote from Villette and that sentence from my review is actually the sound of the reference sailing over my head. I'll let it stand as a lesson: self, google the quotes you plan to get snarky with!
This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're interested in signing up, you can do it here. If you want to check out what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.