The German word bildungsroman is used to describe what we English-speakers know as a “coming of age novel.” However, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is not merely a coming of age novel, it’s a coming-out novel, and it’s also a tour de force. I’m not sure if there is a single term that accurately sums up what this book is about, and I’m okay with that.
This novel is separated from Winterson’s real life by only the thinnest of threads. Like the real Jeanette, the fictional Jeanette was adopted as a child and raised by a strict evangelical Christian family in northern England who groomed her for a life as a missionary. Also like the real Jeanette, the fictional Jeanette realized that she was a lesbian and, soon enough, realized that her family and her church would no longer welcome her once she refused to equate her sexuality with an evil demon living inside of her. By putting her story in ‘novel’ form, Winterson was able to obscure and play with the notion of truth and fiction. Like an episode of Lost, she swings back and forth between two lives and begins to wonder if she can be herself and not-herself at once:
When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing your self. People go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between two realities. There is much pain here. Some people think you can have your cake and eat it. The cake goes moldy after a long time and they choke on what’s left. Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to see you changed, they will treat you as you always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.
Rather than simply being a story about one young woman’s struggle to come to terms with her sexuality, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a lyrical, transcendent book. She’s not just creating another self – she’s creating a better self.