Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - book reviewI picked up Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit after reading The Passion and falling in love with Jeanette Winterson’s writing style. I also fancied a nice short read after reading Ursula le Guin’s The Dispossessed (review to follow shortly). Did it turn out to be the special book I was hoping it would be? You’ll have to read on to find out!

A semi-autobiographical book published in 1985, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is the story of a young girl – Jeanette, growing up in an English Pentecostal community. Jeanette’s mother’s ambition (she is adopted) is that  “She would get a child, train it, build it, dedicate it to the lord”. However when Jeanette discovers she desires another girl, the evangelical church members respond in a variety of ways to what they perceive as the threat of her developing homosexuality.

I would say that Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is a coming of age novel rather than a ‘book about lesbians’, as I had assumed (a vague notion picked up from the controversy around the BBC adaptation which was on TV when I was a child). While lesbianism is a theme, it is just one of the elements of a novel that shows a young person developing in an environment that is at odds with who they are becoming. It is also in many ways a commentary on religious zeal and both the positive and negative consequences of religious influence.

The novel is written in the first person so we share Jeanette’s experiences closely as she heads off to school (she has been home-schooled) encountering disapproval to her dogged evangelical mindset from teachers right through to her own attempts to reconcile her faith and her sexual feelings. We also are party to her thoughts as she considers her ambivalency towards men even from an early age and her response to the prophetic comment from a gypsy woman “You’ll never marry”. She begins to understand as she grows up, what her mother refers to as “unnatural passions” are not the chemicals that are added to sweets, but is the words that will be used to describe her desires as they are perceived by those around her. I found that the first-person style, was very touching. It is also used to create gently comic moments for example in the way that Jeanette as a child observes the church which are often very funny and quite tender. We see the strength and the will of those around her as positive things and their views as quirky. However the book becomes more serious as it develops, quirky views becoming controlling, exclusive and dangerous.

The book also contains Winterson’s distinctive storytelling style in fairytale passages where Jeanette conjures up characters such as Sir Percival, a sorcerer and a wise goose. These passages are intertwined with the main story and seem to be fantastical versions of the characters and obstacles that Jeanette faces. While I enjoyed this aspect, I have to admit that I didn’t always get where it was coming from, whereas in The Passion, I felt the magic and real elements were more effectively woven in. However, I think that this is because The Passion was written later, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit written when Winterson was only 24!

I really enjoyed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For a small book it packs in a huge amount, it’s easy to read, with light-hearted moments at the same time as delving into quite dark subject matter. It didn’t blow me away as much as The Passion, but I think that may have been because that was my first Winterson book, and such an unusual one. Perhaps Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was more subtle than I expected, however I think that this subtlety is it’s key and Winterson’s knack is in conveying the book’s serious messages without bludgeoning people with them. Further insight into her messages and ideas can found in the author introduction to the Vintage edition pictured above.

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a beautifully written book with a uniquely intimate perspective and concentrates on feelings much more than events. I can really sense that this was a story written by a young Winterson at the start of a brilliant career and while I think I may enjoy her later works even more, it is definitely a story that will stay with me and encourages me to read other books by her.

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or seen the 80’s BBC TV series?

17 responses to “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

  1. I have never read anything by Winterson before, but yours is the second positive review I’ve seen of this book in a week. Which convinced me to add and ove it up on my wishlist.

  2. Blimey, I didn’t realise she was only 24 when she wrote this! Clearly I need to get a move on.

    Anyway, glad you liked Oranges; it was the second I read of hers as well, and I did enjoy it and I just love Jeanette Winterson’s style. I agree that The Passion is perhaps superior in terms of craftswomanship, but I will always have a special place in my heart for Oranges.

    Which is funny, because I really hate the fruit. Give me a satsuma any day.

    • Tell me about it, I had a moment of ‘what on earth was I doing at 24?!’. Totally agree with you about satsumas :)

  3. What a brilliant review! I have dabbled in Winterson and thought she was ok but as I read her for university I don’t think I had the chance to really ‘enjoy’ her, so I should give her books another go. This sounds very interesting – I’d love to understand more about her childhood experiences with religion and sexuality. I’ll keep an eye out for it!

    • Ah, I think sometimes you get ‘learning’ hangovers from books you’ve read at school or uni. I would definitely give The Passion a read if you haven’t already!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this book and your review captures it perfectly. I have to say I am not a fan of any of her other novels but I think this is her first so is a slightly different style.

    • I was quite surprised at how different it was from The Passion, which I think is probably good as with other authors I like it’s good to have variety.

  5. I just finished this book, ten minutes ago, and your review has helped me think it through. Thanks! I agree with what you say about the writer’s subtlety. A few off-the-cuff sentences floored me. Even the mention of the book’s title in the dialogue (something that normally makes me groan) was pregnant with surprising meaning. Wonderful book, intelligent review.

    • Hi John-Paul, drop me a link to your review, I’d like to read it. It was a great book and thank you for your complimentary comment too.

  6. The line “I would say that Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is a coming of age novel rather than a ‘book about lesbians’” has just made me guffaw and I think every one around me guessed I might not be doing quite as much work as I should hahaha.

    I have this to read very, very soon!

  7. I loved your review of this book! Oranges is one of my favorite Winterson books. I just found the whole story engaging and well written and full of interesting ideas about self-discovery. And it just illustrates what a creative mind Winterson has. Glad you enjoyed it!

  8. This book left such an impression on me and like you I couldn’t believe that she was only 24 at the time. I had no idea there was a tv series, I shall have to look out for that.

  9. Pingback: Novel Insights’ April Review « Novel Insights

  10. Pingback: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson « Sam Still Reading

  11. Pingback: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson « Sam Still Reading

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