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Genre Literary, Semi-autobiographical
Publication Date March 1985
Length 224 pages
Content Warnings Child abuse, homophobia
What It’s About
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman novel that draws upon the author’s own childhood and life experiences. In a small Northern town in the 1950s and 60s, Jeanette is being raised by her formidable mother as a good Christian girl who dreams of becoming a missionary.
However, after falling in love with one of her female converts, Jeanette embarks on a series of lesbian love affairs that will force her to confront the darker sides of her community. Determined not to choose between her love of women and her calling as a preacher, she must fight to retain her identity, sexuality, and faith intact.
First Chapter Impressions
The book is structured in short chapters that move swiftly through key moments in Jeanette’s life, never lingering for long in one place. This made it an engaging read to dip in and out of between writing my final university assignments! Also, don’t be put off by the biblical references in the chapter headings – I’m not from a practicing Christian background but my lack of biblical knowledge didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
The only thing that unsettled me at first was the offbeat, slightly eccentric writing style, but I soon found it one of the most intriguing elements of the story, and it perfectly complements the characters.
However, what really made me want to keep reading was the central character and narrator, Jeanette. Her quirky humour, unapologetic attitude, and understated strength endeared and bewildered me in equal measure.
Final Page Reflections
As much as the narrator Jeanette drew me into the story, when I progressed further into the book I began to wish for a greater sense of connection with her character. Something about her narrative style felt superficial, keeping the reader at arm’s length. While I understood that Jeanette’s studied eccentricity could be a form of coping mechanism, it also functioned to detach her and limit access to her true thoughts and feelings.
Having said that, I did still enjoy the time I spent seeing the world through Jeanette’s eyes. Her character is intently observant, able to make small, seemingly insignificant everyday moments appear either darkly destructive or powerfully life affirming.
Diversity and Representation
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit portrays many different facets of lesbian experience in the 1960s – from the boldly expressive, to those who are sort-of-closeted or in painful denial. Jeanette Winterson honours all of these various perspectives, treating them with sympathy and sensitivity.
- Religion & faith
Beyond the Book
Around the time that I was reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson went viral for burning her own books in protest at the publisher’s blurbs. The author felt that the radical edge of her stories was being blunted, to present them instead as cosy women’s fiction. I can’t help but admire her for this – what a statement!
The controversy made me think about how books are marketed, and whether authors should have a say in the process that helps their books reach audiences.
If you’re reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a book club pick or just looking to ponder the story in a little more depth, these questions should help get you started:
1. Do you think authors should have a say in how their books are marketed? Or do they surrender this power when they hand their manuscript over to publishers?
2. What were your feelings towards the mythic sections inserted between chapters of Jeanette’s life? Do you think they added to her story?
3. Jeanette’s story may be tragic at times, but her quirky brand of humour shines through as well. Which moment in the book made you laugh the most?
“She must find a boat and sail in it. No guarantee of shore. Only a conviction that what she wanted could exist, if she dared to find it.”~ Jeanette Winterson, ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’
Read If You like the sound of a lesbian coming-of-age tale with a quirky style.
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You may also like: Zami by Audre Lorde
Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit? What other books with great lesbian representation would you recommend? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!