Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
is a novel by English author Jeanette Winterson
. It is the story of a young woman in a highly fundamentally religious community who falls in love with another girl and is shunned by her family and congregation.
The novel, which happens to have been Winterson's first, is written in the first person and is narrated by its protagonist, Jeanette. Jeanette tells the story from a hindsight perspective; several years seem to have passed between the events in the story and their retelling. This allows for heightened contrast between how Jeanette felt about the events at the time during which they occured and how she felt about them as she retold her story.
Winterson has indicated that the novel is at least partially autobiographical, though she has refused to say to what extent. Many of the events in the novel parallel events of her own life, particularly the circumstances surrounding her adoption and various aspects of her relationship with her mother. Winterson was adopted, just as her fictional character was, and both adopted mothers sought to make their daughters into missionaries.
Jeanette's mother has devoted her entire life not only to the service of God but also to a universal conversion project. She believes that it is necessary to convert the entire world to Christianity within ten years. She has even gone so far as to adopt her daughter because she didn't want to partake in sexual activity -- even for the purpose of procreation. She belongs to a highly religious community. It comes as more than a bit of a shock, then, when Jeanette meets a girl named Melanie, they fall in love and have a physical relationship. This does not sit well with either the congregation or with Jeanette's mother.
The novel has frequently been described as a coming-of-age story. Jeanette is forced to deal with a heightened sense of self while attempting to come to terms with the anger and hostility her community feels. Throughout the course of the novel, she discovers who she can truly trust and who has betrayed her.
The title is derived from a statement made by a mistress of a king during the middle ages (this tidbit was shared by my English professor, but now I can't seem to find the specifics); it was taken to represent the woman's view that the 'proper sort' of woman was not the only sort. Oranges are brought up in the text on several occasions, and are usually taken to represent the mother or the community's ideals of the status quo. Oranges are offered to Jeanette by several people during the novel, particularly in parts where people attempt to make her conform to their standards of sexuality. It does seem, however, that Winterson might have chosen the novel's title before she came up with the use of orange imagery (the historical background behind the title supports this) and many readers and critics believe the imagery was overused. Then again, it worked for a lot of people. Your mileage may vary. teleny also points out that the use of the term 'orange' is also loaded in a religious sense, as orange is a colour that is often associated with Protestantism. (Thanks!)
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an example of post-modernist literature. It contains several sub-storylines, all of which parallel the main storyline in some way. Winterson breaks away from Jeanette's narrative to share stories that are almost fairy tale-like in nature. One, the story of Sir Perceval's quest for the holy grail, borrows heavily from Arthurian legend. It (like the other interjected storylines) is told in fragments, each of which bears some resemblance to Jeanette's quest for understanding and self-sufficiency.
The novel's eight chapters are named after the first eight books of the Old Testament. This is a direct reference to the religious overtones and themes that exist within the book, and are particularly relevant to Winterson's apparent 'rewriting' of the Bible from an entirely new perspective. It's also interesting to note that the events or themes of each chapter do bear some resemblance to the events or themes in each corresponding biblical chapter. For instance, Exodus is the biblical chapter in which the Israelites are given God's law. In Oranges..., it is in this chapter that Jeanette's mother lays down her own laws for her household1.
There is also a certain amount of intertextuality in this novel. It mentions, among other texts, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. Though it is only mentioned briefly, it does allude to relationships between women and attitudes towards them.
The book was fashioned into a television miniseries in 1990. Winterson wrote the screenplay. I haven't seen this, but based on the Internet Movie Database's entry2, a few changes appear to have been made. Jeanette's name has been changed to Jess, perhaps because Winterson was not entirely comfortable with the novel coming across as an entirely factual account of her life's story. This is mere speculation, however.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is certainly imaginatively written, though it will almost certainly not appeal to everyone's taste. Its best qualities are its plot and thematic values, however the characterization of Jeanette will drive a lot of people up the proverbial wall as it sometimes seems as though the narration is written in such a way so as to evoke as much pity as possible from people. Since there's no way to know how much of this was derived from Winterson's own experiences, though, blame cannot rest exclusively with her.
1 While I haven't seen this concept in any reviews, it was a major part of a presentation given by one of my classmates. It makes a lot of sense.