Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Guest post: Report on reading group discussion of Oranges are not the Only Fruit

I wasn't at the last meeting when the reading group discussed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the well-known and acclaimed autobiographical first novel by Jeanette Winterson, in which a protagonist with the same name as the author is brought up to be a preacher by an adoptive and fanatically evangelical Christian mother who burns her books, but, discovering her lesbian sexuality, finally rebels and escapes to university.

Here is the report of the discussion written by John:

Jenny chose this book. Or rather she suggested two other books and was met by a number of people very obviously not keen to choose either of them. She then mentioned she’d seen a programme with Jeanette Winterson talking about her memoir, recently published, which she found interesting. There was then the suggestion that we read Oranges and general agreement.
Jenny, whose initials, like JW’s, are JW, said she felt very close to the book, being adopted herself in rather similar circumstances – she was adopted into a “working class” home and became a university lecturer. Jenny said her mother was not like JW's – but that she was nonetheless a mother with a mission.
Jenny said she had enjoyed the book, and that it is very funny. She (hailing from Stoke), Mark (Moston), John (Skem and New Mills) and Trevor (Bolton) all agreed about the interesting and vivid picture of life in Northern towns it presented. There was general agreement that the women were particularly well portrayed. Trevor said he could exactly imagine the cafĂ© – and at this moment Mark phoned to apologise for being late for the meeting. He was, he said, in the chippy with his kids and would be along soon (typical northern life!).
Jenny said she liked the book because it is short and sharp with no long words. I pointed out “marmalade” and “Factory Bottoms”, but she still insisted there are not many long words. Ann also admired what she called the matter-of-fact tone, “No violins”, no in-depth analysis of personality. Clare said the characters are great, and Ann added, Particularly the women, in general strong women, in an environment where the men are absent or weak. Ann and Clare agreed the mother was mad, gloriously mad.
Two particular incidents were mentioned: the father’s carefully wrapped birthday present to his wife, a catapult, I think to get rid of squirrels or some such, and another incident, typical perhaps of northern life, or perhaps of the non-rich everywhere: the pressing of a glass against a thin partition wall to hear what’s going on next door. Surprisingly, this was not the mother’s glass for her false teeth, but a wine glass! This led to a discussion of the mother’s background. She is not typical of the working classes in small northern towns, but has at least one wine glass, knows some French and has had a French lover, a relationship that seems ended for her with some regret. She is also a fan of the Brontes. However she tells JW her own versions: Jane Eyre ends early, with Jane marrying the preacher man, St John!
The mother’s husband is introduced early, but takes very little part in the book. JW refers to him early on not as her father, but as “her mother’s husband”. He oozes supressed aggression. The first paragraph of the book was discussed, in which the mother wrestles with God.  This is highly significant in terms of what we are told about the father. A man who says nothing and has such a wife, and spends much time watching wrestling must surely be someone who is suppressing aggression? The mother says nothing to him, and very little about him, one of her main statements being “He’s not one to push himself”.
Jenny said she wondered if she hadn’t previously read the book after all as she had thought, because she couldn’t find it in her house and wondered if she knew the story well because she knew it from the television series. It was agreed that the TV adaptation presented a more dramatic storyline. Ann wondered if the book is a memoir rather than a novel. Most agreed and it was stated that there is no central drama, but an attrition of information. The book drifted rather than focusing on the story. It was agreed there are non-memoir elements, that is the Arthur and the Knights stuff and the cod philosophy. It was felt that these last were “showing off”, though they had not particularly bothered any one – most people had skirted over them.
The symbolism of the title was discussed, and the large number of references to oranges in the text. The title [a favourite saying of the mother's] suggests that there are alternatives, and ironically the mother did not believe in alternatives but in good/evil, friend/enemy dichotomies.  Two possibilities for the meaning of the title were discussed: that there is the religious view of life and the non-religious, and  that there is not just one type of sex. The mother is well aware of lesbianism, having stopped the young JW going to a particular newsagent's shop, run by two women she “suspected”. The link between oranges and Nell Gwyn was mentioned, and after the group meeting a Google search of  “Jeannette Winterson” and “lesbian” brought up something like a million references. However “Nell Gwyn and lesbianism” brought up more.
I mentioned that in spite of any faults the book is a great achievement for an author who was so young when she wrote it, having been able to absorb much painful material.
It was agreed that JW was given a remarkable degree of self-confidence by being moulded by her mother – Ann mentioned the Jesuits, give me a child until he is 7... The groups’ attitude was that JW was both to be admired and pitied. Her famous entry for book of the year for a newspaper was mentioned, and the fact that most people put forward their friends, whereas she put forward only herself.
It was said that she seems in a way like Mrs Thatcher, but more vulnerable than was usually evident. Various members of the group seemed to think she’d had a hard time about 15 years ago, and had tried suicide.
This was one of the more popular books recently discussed by the group.
It was generally agreed that the last paragraph of the book is brilliant. “This is Kindly Light calling, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light.”

The group went on to discuss its own possible claim to fame. Nicholas Royle’s recent novel, First Novel, set in our area and referring to real-life characters, mentions a reading group. There is the implication that this is a mainstream group, with possible negative connotations. I read out some passages from the book, which had been sent to one group member, directing them at Mark. It gradually dawned on him that he and his wife bore some remarkable similarities to a couple in the book, the wife having 'meringue-like breasts', which seemed to be intended as a compliment. Clare suggested that the group should choose to read and discuss the book. This was met with howls of horror and laughter. One member of the group is Elizabeth Baines whose blog this is. She wasn’t present however. She appears named in this book, with some physical description and apparent life details – and to no precise purpose it seems. All the group were shocked by this. They asked me, as a friend of hers, what she thought. * I said I didn’t really know. Three group members were enraged on her behalf.

* Elizabeth Baines: You can read what I did think about it towards the end of this post on my Fictionbitch blog.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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