Book Review: Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, by Anna Whateley

Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, Anna Whateley, Allen and Unwin, 2020

From the publisher:

At sixteen, neurodivergent Peta Lyre is the success story of social training. That is, until she finds herself on a school ski trip – and falling in love with the new girl. Peta will need to decide which rules to keep, and which rules to break…

‘I’m Peta Lyre,’ I mumble. Look people in the eye if you can, at least when you greet them. I try, but it’s hard when she is smiling so big, and leaning in.

Peta Lyre is far from typical. The world she lives in isn’t designed for the way her mind works, but when she follows her therapist’s rules for ‘normal’ behaviour, she can almost fit in without attracting attention.

When a new girl, Sam, starts at school, Peta’s carefully structured routines start to crack. But on the school ski trip, with romance blooming and a newfound confidence, she starts to wonder if maybe she can have a normal life after all.
When things fall apart, Peta must decide whether all the old rules still matter. Does she want a life less ordinary, or should she keep her rating normal?

I didn’t have a great time, at primary school. I went to a semi-rural school. The kids were mostly farm kids – sporty and tough and, to me, impossibly cool.

I was shy, bookish and terrible at sports (the one exception being running – while I was completely uncoordinated, running in a straight line I could just about handle). I also had the social skills of your average walrus. I could never read social cues. I laughed at the wrong time. I talked too long and too loudly, because I hated silences. I clammed up completely when I was really nervous. I cried randomly for no reason anyone could ascertain. I felt too much and too hard. Noise scared me. Unfamiliar textures sent me into spirals of anxiety. I had multiple food phobias (compounded by my terrible stomach pain – much later diagnosed as coeliac disease). I found logical things impossible to understand. Maths gave me panic attacks. I developed many obsessions – animal rights, Robin Klein books and Paul Mercurio being just a few of them. I was, basically, a social disaster. I had no friends. I had no “rating normal”.

When I heard about Anna Whateley’s forthcoming book, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, I knew that this would be a book after my own heart. I had been following Anna for quite some time on Twitter and loved everything she wrote, so when I saw she had a book coming out, with Allen and Unwin – one of my favourite publishers – I was thrilled. When I found out it was an own voices story of neurodivergence, I rang my bookshop and preordered straight away.

I had to wait a little while to get my hands on a copy – the world being what it is, right now. When I finally got the call from my lovely bookseller, I abandoned the book I was reading and started Peta Lyre right away. Side note: you can always tell how much I love a book by whether I immediately abbreviate its title.

Peta was so worth the wait.

The titular protagonist spoke directly to my heart. Her struggles to fit in and be “normal” felt so familiar to me. Her inner turmoil and struggles to be kind to others while simultaneously protecting her own mental health felt so real and painful. Her yearning for the affection she lacked in her immediate family unit was completely heartbreaking. And the love story … oh, that love story. I was in tears on multiple occasions – wanting so much for things to turn out all right, remembering my own, painful first loves, wishing I could walk into the book and have a stern word with everyone involved …

It’s another sign of how much I love a book when I start talking to it as I’m reading – something I often don’t notice until my daughter begins expressing her concerns about me. I talked to this book. I laughed and I cried. I wanted to rescue those kids. I wanted to yell at some of the adults and hug others and tell them they were excellent human beings.

This book is sure to speak to the hearts of so many people – both those diagnosed as “letter kids” and those, like me, who still struggle to find their “rating normal”. I heartily recommend it to absolutely everyone. This book will change lives.

I moved schools in grade six, partly to escape the horrible bullying I was experiencing at my former school. On my first day at my new primary school, I met a girl who was talking to her feet. Her name was Julia. She was obsessed with The Beatles and Star Wars and The X Files and she introduced me to the incomparable pleasure of eating Milo straight from the tin. Julia and I became best friends and, with that friendship, I learned that “normal” is overrated. We’re still friends, twenty-eight years on.

Some stories have happy endings.

Review by Kate Gordon.

Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal is available to purchase at Booktopia.

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