There is no question in my mind that Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette is an important piece of modern Australian literature. And I did laugh out loud when I read Foetal Attraction and Mad Cows. I probably smiled during Dead Sexy and How to Kill Your Husband but I honestly can’t remember. After reading Lette’s latest release, The Boy Who Fell to Earth, I have resolved to leave Lette out of my reading future (re-readings of Puberty Blues excepted). You see, the problem is I’ve heard the jokes before. All of them.
The Boy Who Fell to Earth is about a woman, Lucy, and her bright son, Merlin. Merlin has Aspergers. Shortly after his diagnosis, Merlin’s father hot foots it out of their lives. Hurt and betrayed, Lucy directs all of her love and attention to Merlin. Struggling with the joys and tribulations of raising her eccentrically adorable yet challenging child, Lucy doesn’t have room for any other man in her life – but that changes at the urging of her family and Merlin. We read about a string of dating disasters (where Lette gets to trot out a bunch of stereo-typed characters) before Lucy meets Archie – a rough-as-guts Aussie and seemingly the man least likely. Just when things are going well, Merlin’s father returns, begging for forgiveness and a second chance. But does he have an ulterior motive? No need to guess how it ends.
Basically, Lette’s constant stream of one-liners, scabrous observations and somewhat cliché characters is tiring. It’s almost as if she made a long list of ‘must-be-included’ jokes then set about fashioning the story around them. For example –
“So why did I get to play Lizzie Bennet to his dashing Darcy? To be honest, I think it was mainly because my name wasn’t Candida or Chlamydia; he’d come across too many upper-class females curiously named after a genital infection. These women not only owned horses but looked like them. They could probably count with one foot. If you asked for their hand in marriage, they’s answer ‘Yeah’ or ‘Neigh!'”
“…social workers told me that being the mother of a child with autism would be a challenge but an exciting one… This is as accurate as the captain of the Titanic telling his passengers that they were in for a diverting little dip in the briny. Mothering a child on the autism spectrum is as easy as skewering banana custard to a mid-air boomerang.”
“My husband’s birth certificate is an apology letter from the condom factory…”
It’s such a shame because I think when Lette doesn’t try so hard, she can be very funny. The bits that are less ‘in-your-face’ are a relief – “The women in your life are your human wonder-bras – uplifting, supportive and making each other look bigger and better. My loving sister and mother kept me buoyant during this fraught time.”
I picked up The Boy Who Fell to Earth because I have an interest in Aspergers. Whilst I can’t comment on the accuracy of Lette’s portrayal of life with an autistic child, I did find the character of Merlin quite lovely. In particular, his quirky, emotion-filled notes to Lucy were gorgeous and often quite funny.
I should pair this book with tomatoes (that you can ‘throw at the stage’ while heckling) but that’s not very grown-up of me and after all, why waste a good tomato?! So, sticking to the tomato theme, I’ll go for one of my all time favourites – bruschetta.
1/5 I only just made it through. If you want Lette at her best, grab a copy Puberty Blues – a restrained portrait of teenage life in the seventies – sometimes funny but at the same time, devastatingly sad (see a clip from the equally classic movie below).