They say not to judge a book by its cover, but I think you could make an exception when it comes to the work of Kathy Lette. To wander along her 30-odd year back catalogue of covers is to walk along the glossy windows of a shopping mall: all lurid colours, bouncy broads and ostentatious accessories. Lette was doing chick-lit long before it was fashionable and has made a career of no holds barred wise-cracking women’s fiction. She writes about “the way women talk when there are no men around”, she has said – and in technicolour! So the cover of The Boy Who Fell to Earth made me do a double take. Sombre tones and exquisite subtle graphics suggest a tender relationship between mother and son. I wondered whether this could be a complete change of pace for a writer who’s been called the “effervescent princess of pun”?
The Boy Who Fell to Earth presents the story of Lucy, a London-based teacher who has ‘married up’ by snaring aristocratic wannabe MP, Jeremy. Jeremy has inherited his family’s lack of a compassion gene and leaves Lucy as soon as their son Merlin is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. While Jeremy gallivants with a new trophy girlfriend, Lucy does battle with her relatives, his relatives, the education system and online dating in a quest to create some sort of ‘normal’ family life for her and her son. Along the way she meets Archie – an old rocker with a chronically overdrawn Australian accent and a gift for ‘70s sexism – who, despite initial impressions, turns out to have much to offer Merlin. From here, the overarching narrative is predictable as we navigate Lucy’s journey towards finding Mr Right. The main difference from other ‘dating’ novels, though, is the delightfully candid intrusions by Merlin: a first date chaperone who notices the most obscure of details and cannot tell a lie. Merlin has pendulum mood swings, inexplicable anxieties, an immense vocabulary and no communication filters.
As well as affectionately describing Merlin’s quirks, the novel deals with some of the difficult issues around parenting a child with special needs, such as how to negotiate sexuality, and how to give them freedom to mature whilst keeping them safe from harm. At the same time, while Lucy is a fierce advocate for her son’s rights, she seems to play a very passive role in his day to day life, expecting the education system or the much-sought-after ‘new Dad’ to somehow make Merlin’s future more manageable. Lette has been frank in interviews about the tribulations of life with her own autistic son, so there is much she could offer about the coping mechanisms necessary for a family to function around the challenges of this disorder. We learn, for example, that Merlin can’t slice a tomato, however he is free to catch the bus to the museum: is this a narrative inconsistency, or one of the typical incongruities that go with a condition like Asperger’s? I wanted to know more about the special ways in which Lucy
prepared Merlin for his day, rather than her endless frustration with ‘the system’.
Having said that, the bureaucracy and aggression Lucy faces while negotiating Merlin’s health and educational needs left me aghast. Much of the first half of the book is about Lucy’s longing to have Merlin placed at a ‘special school’ since mainstream schools leave him failing badly in all subjects, staring blankly out windows and subject to regular, frightening bullying. Merlin is taunted with names like ‘retard’ by students, but gets little support from teachers who tell Lucy he will just ‘grow out’ of his symptoms, which may in fact just be cries for attention in the wake of his parents’ divorce. While I have no doubt that there are many struggles faced by parents of special needs children, some of this didn’t ring true in this day and age where, whilst by no means perfect, there is a far greater understanding of the autism spectrum than days gone by. I questioned whether this is an indictment of the British education system, or whether it reflected Lette’s experiences with her own now adult son, who would have perhaps been educated in a less accommodating era? Or maybe I’m just naively optimistic?
By the second half of the novel Lucy seems to sit back and wise-crack her way through Merlin being lead into ridiculous predicaments by both Archie and Jeremy, all in the quest to figure out which potential father has the most to offer. This doesn’t correlate with her understandable declarations about the strength required by parents of special needs kids, who must be teachers, lawyers, researchers and medical specialists all at once. One minute she is cuddling her golden-haired boy after one of many harrowing playground attacks: the next he is off on a date with an escort thanks to her on-again, off-again Aussie shag. The novel degenerated for me at the point where the mother-son relationship began to play second fiddle to the relentless innuendos, and Lucy seemed increasingly dependent on finding a man to solve all her problems.
Lette is a smart writer, however, and at one point Archie tells Lucy that the “the way you get a kid to eat vegetables is to coat them in chocolate”. I wondered whether that was one of Lette’s aims here? On the back of the author’s bestseller reputation, and replete with cheeky insinuations and colourful sex scenes, this book will reach a much wider audience than any dry analysis of autism. In that sense, the book might open some eyes, and minds, about the complex nature of the disorder, particularly as the descriptions of Merlin’s speech and behaviour are some of the best-crafted examples of Lette’s writing talents.
This book can be very funny when Lette’s scathing wit is let rip, but the passages that captured my heart were the insightful descriptions of Merlin’s unique worldview. This was never meant to be a medical analysis of Asperger’s Syndrome – I expected, and was well rewarded with, Lette’s trademark one-liners – but it does seem like a missed opportunity for a gifted wordsmith, with personal experience of the issues, to create the truly memorable story of motherly love that the charming cover design suggests.
The Boy Who Fell to Earth is published by Random House.