Different direction … Kathy Lette has turned to something “a teeny bit more serious”. Photo: Michael Mucci
Kathy Lette puts ‘chook lit’ aside for a serious look at raising an autistic child.
She has written about infidelity, stressful marriage, sex, love, life and men, ageism, plastic surgery, motherhood, divorce, menopause and being single and pregnant in London.
Her 12th book, The Boy who Fell to Earth, takes Kathy Lette in a different direction, something ”a teeny bit more serious”, as she puts it. That something is Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterised by communication impairment and inappropriate or obsessive behaviour.
It is based on her own experience with her son Julius, 21, who has OK’d what is more self-help memoir-fiction than Lette’s customary ”chook-lit” confection. How she handles this delicate subject and whether other mothers with autistic children will relate or cringe are worth pondering.
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The Boy who Fell to Earth by Kathy Lette.
She starts with an atypical Lette prologue about a car hitting 16-year-old Merlin, ”whose body jack-knifes skyward then falls with a sickening thud on to its bonnet before bouncing down to the bitumen”, while the observer remembers her last words to him were, ”You’ve ruined my life. I wish I’d never had you. Why can’t you be normal?”
This is Lucy speaking, the mother of Merlin, and the writing is so unlike Lette that an immediate examination of the book’s blurb is vital to check it really is by the author renowned for her pun-a-paragraph and jugular-joke style. Relax. ”By the time Merlin turns 10 Lucy is seriously worried the Pope might ring her up for tips on celibacy,” it says. So breathe again, that’s her.
Her ability to sugar-coat the unpalatable truth resonates throughout, though sometimes you wish it didn’t. for example, ”I know why so many women die in childbirth, because it’s less painful than going on living”. but that’s what we pay our money for and must tolerate. So don’t be surprised when early on, the good-looking rich husband, Jeremy, is demolished. Lette has a way of dismissing undesirable characters tout de suite. this one can’t accept his son’s condition, dumps him and Lucy and takes off for the US.
”Mothering a child on the autism spectrum is as easy as skewering banana custard to a mid-air boomerang,” Lette writes, returning to flippancy because, don’t forget, she is describing her own life with Julius. she has been – still is – handling it all. Her problem now is how to sustain a tricky subject yet still give it her Lette-ian style. Fortunately, Merlin has a highly developed but misplaced sense of humour and timing, which keeps the plot rolling.
With rellies begging her to get another man, we sail into familiar Lette territory. Over the next five years, Lucy dates ”a minestrone of men – a manastrone”. Potential fathers for Merlin come and go. Octavian is a sexy, upper-class, muscular-thighed polo player.
”You must be the one she doesn’t have anything in common with who has a good sex drive,” pronounces Merlin, now 11. ”Does that mean you drive here for sex with my mother?”
Bob the dentist introduces his daughter to Merlin, who asks: ”Is your clitoris long or short? or do all girls have the same size?” Chris the pilot mentions hair. Merlin responds: ”On girls hair first grows on the labia before filling the pubic triangle which grows to stop chafing.” Django the gardener has two sons. Merlin tells one: ”If I were gay I would find you very attractive because of your exquisite musculature.”
And so it goes, each relationship crashing to a halt, until finally Lucy confesses to her tennis instructor, Adam, that he is the only one, to be interrupted by Merlin: ”Technically that’s not true.” he rattles off an excruciatingly accurate list of names, dates and attributes of past lovers. being autistic, he has a phenomenal memory. other scenarios play out: school (expulsion), shops (mugging), social gatherings (embarrassing). Then, just as Lette is pontificating about how lousy it is to be a woman this century – having to fix fuses, fend off robbers, change car tyres – a tall, dark stranger arrives: Archie.
Here the narrative plateaus. for 68 pages, Lette writes gag-filled action for the 50-year-old out-of-work Aussie rock star, conveniently good at DIY, burglar-bashing and chauffeuring, who needs a bed. Archie is a mess but a hit with Merlin, introducing him to brothels, motorbikes, booze (screams from Lucy) and inevitably (ho-hum), guitar-plucking his way into her bed (ecstasy).
I’m thinking Lette has lost the plot at this point (I seem to be missing all those puns and double entendres) when Lucy opens the door and there’s hubby Jeremy begging forgiveness and, after 16 years, accepting his autistic son.
Of course there’s a twist (or two) and the author has, as promised, ”put the pen in the artery this time”. but mothers with autistic children needn’t flinch. Life, as Lucy/Lette tells us, goes on in all its messy glory.
THE BOY WHO FELL TO EARTH
Random House, 336pp, $32.95
Mother of all delicate issues