2012 REVIEWS GENERAL #2

 

 THE BOY WHO FELL TO EARTH
Author: Kathy Lette
Bantam Press RRP $32
Reviewer: Monique Mulligan

“Your breath smells so much nicer now. When you’re in bed in the morning, it smells like poo.”

The Boy Who Fell To EarthHilarious. If I had to choose one word to sum up Kathy Lette’s latest novel, The Boy who Fell to Earth, that would be it. It’s rare that I’m able to stop talking (or writing) with just one word, though – must keep up appearances!A story about a mother’s love for her son and a love affair that is about as smooth as Rocky Road, The Boy who Fell to Earth­ centres on cynical single mother Lucy and her son, Merlin. Left in the lurch by Merlin’s father once Merlin was diagnosed as high-functioning autistic (he has Asperger’s Syndrome), they make a life for themselves that involves regular battles with schools, bureaucrats and no men. Merlin is the centre of Lucy’s world – how could she possibly have room for a man in her life?

Eventually Lucy realises she is in danger of becoming a poster woman for celibacy, so she re-enters the world of dating. Things don’t quite go to plan. Merlin says what he thinks before he really thinks – ‘So what does Mum mean when she says you’re bonkable?’ he asks her doctor. It’s not difficult to imagine how his innocent candour would dampen the ardour of potential suitors. And then, when things finally seem to be moving in the right, if unexpected, direction, Merlin’s father returns, begging for a second chance.

The fast-paced novel veers between laugh out loud, bittersweet, sad and haunting moments. At times the comedy is acidic, with snappy one liners shooting out one after another; other times it is more poignant, particularly when coming from Merlin. And there are moments when the reader identifies strongly with Lucy’s frustration as she deals with insensitive teachers and social workers. This however, is not the foundation of the novel; it merely serves to highlight Lucy and Merlin’s strong bond – it’s them against the world.

More than a comedienne, Lette has an intuitive ability to reach women with her writing. The Boy who Fell to Earth will strike a chord with any women everywhere, from those fighting bureaucracies for their children, to those fighting to maintain a meaningful romantic relationship amid the opposing calls of motherhood and self. This book made me laugh, it made me cry – I’m recommending this to my friends as a must read. Or I might have to knock some sense into them.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House Australia.


ELZA’S KITCHEN
Author: Marc Fitten
Bloomsbury RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Food and fiction is often a recipe for success in my book, so I didn’t hesitate when I was offered Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten. However, while my tastebuds were tempted, and there were plenty of good ingredients, I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied…something was missing.

The story begins with Elza, a 48-year-old restauarateur in Delibab, Hungary who takes pride in serving quality versions of her country’s classics in a manner that brings people back again and again. It’s fine dining with a smile, except the food has a “reminds me of my grandmother” quality. But lately it doesn’t feel right. Triggered by seeing a photo of her ex-husband (who has since moved on), Elza feels weary. Weary of serving the same old thing, weary of her younger lover (the Sous-Chef), weary of life. Somehow life is passing her by and despite her success and material comforts, fulfillment seems out of reach.

She starts to think about her restaurant – does she need a new menu or an addition to the menu? Will that bring her whatever is lacking, the missing ingredient? She decides she needs to “work at acquiring some recognition in the restaurant world” and sets herself the challenge of wooing The Critic, one of the harshest, most powerful restaurant columnists in Europe. Despite his preference for French haute cuisine, Elza is convinced she not only lure him to her restaurant, but can also create the perfect meal for him.

Elza’s yearning for change is so strong that it infects all around her, albeit not in a good way. Her kitchen suffers as relationships are strained, customers express dissatisfaction and the Sous-Chef has caught the eye of the new pastry chef … when The Critic begrudgingly agrees to visit, chaos is the order of the day in Elza’s Kitchen. Somehow she has to get everyone to work together so The Critic is impressed, but it’s hard when everyone wants to walk out the door.

Elza’s Kitchen has a lovely premise – a woman in a mid-life crisis embarks on a journey of change, only to find that the destination is not where she thought it would be. There is some beautiful writing, particularly in the description of the food and cooking – reading these sections made me hungry. I still want to try Elza’s wine-soaked pork loin with sour cream and dill (if only the book had the exact recipe). I liked the idea of her cooking a meal to lure a crusty critic … the idea has a Chocolat feel about it. However, I found it hard to like Elza – she wasn’t the most appealing character. It was hard to really sympathise with her at times and so it was harder to really care about her dissatisfaction. I also found the storyline involving the gypsies to be distracting. While it did serve to show a more caring and less self-absorbed side of Elza, I felt that the stereotyping these scenes evoked detracted from the beautiful writing that accompanied the main storyline.

I found it interesting that none of the male adult characters had names as such – they were known by their titles (The Critic, The Dishwasher, the Motorcycle Officer, the Professor of Meats). Why is that? Is it because they are, in Elza’s mind, unimportant?

Elza’s Kitchen will not satisfy every palate – it’s a bit like a menu choice that sounds fantastic and tastes good but just misses the mark. I liked it, but it wasn’t consistent enough in its charm and delivery for me to say I loved it.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.