Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was Jeanette Winterson's first novel, and it caused much controversy when it was first published in 1985 due to its heavy criticism of religious customs and superstitions. The main character in the book, Jeanette, is a teenage girl whose family is strongly religious of the Pentecostal faith, and who do not accept Jeannette for who she is. There are many biblical references in the text, as well as quotes, other stories, and historical occurrences.
Jeanette is more rebellious than her religion can allow her to be. She is interested in her sexuality and she experiments with her close friend Melanie, though due to their strict upbringings they are both quite naïve in this respect- neither of them really understand what they are doing. When her church community find out about their encounters, they rigorously exorcise Jeanette, and put her through several other punishments in the hope that her suffering will cleanse her. This may not be a common practice today, but it is often still a very Christian view, and Winterson is somewhat ruthless in portraying it.
There is more to the book than its sexual theme, however. The novel demonstrates the classic clash between an older and younger generation, particularly within a faith that is not willing to evolve with the ages. It is also a journey of self-discovery for Jeanette, and her quest to find her own truth outside of the religious conformity and authority she has always known.
Jeanette's mother has little tolerance for things she disagrees with, and she sees everything in black and white: to her, there is God and The Devil, and there is nothing in between. Hence, she tells Jeanette that 'oranges are the only fruit', but Jeanette is not convinced and is driven to seeking out other types of experience or way of life.
As a first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is strikingly original and full of literary merit. Personally though I found the book hard to follow, as the themes Winterson uniquely covered at the time of release are now prevalent in many novels, so I found them to be a tad repetitive. I also struggled with some of the language in the book. It is not difficult to read exactly but I found that it took a lot of work to get through, as there is so much to think about in it. I think Oranges is perhaps better as a studied text than a book read for pleasure. I will add however that I am a fan of Winterson, and I think some of her other works which are far more enjoyable than Oranges have been overlooked by the critics.