Book review: Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley

(cover image courtesy Allen and Unwin)

One of the reasons many of us read is to be taken to places and realities far beyond our own and to get to know people who otherwise might never be a part of our lives.

It is enormous privilege to be given the chance to dive into a world or spend time with a person who falls outside out lived experience, and nowhere has this been more pronounced, for this reviewer at least, than in Anna Whateley’s emotionally resonant debut novel Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal.

The story of a neurodivergent young women who has spent her life learning to be as “normal” as possible, through medication, therapy and a constant, near-exhausting regimen of self-talk and internalised life lessons where every situation must be assessed before it can be lived, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal is an illuminating look at someone on the autism spectrum, who also has ADHD and Sensory Processing Order (SPD).

Peta is painfully aware that she isn’t a typical 18-year-old.

From a very young age, Peta has been treated by many people, including her own mother who has no patience for her daughter’s points of difference – in stark contrast, Peta’s Aunt Antonia, with whom she now lives, is patient, caring and accepting of her niece just as she is – as an oddity to be cured, fixed and managed.

Peta is all too cognisant of the way that many people talk down to her or treat her like a china girl to be handled with kid gloves with the internal monologue that accompanies all her interactions with others revealing that she resents the way she is treated as different.

“I head up to English and put my shields in place. I hum Jeb’s song to block out the noise of everything. I breathe into my hands, pretending they’re cold, so I only smell my own salty skin. I look down at the pavement so I don’t have to meet anyone’s eye. One boot is tighter than the other, and the waist on my jeans feels too tight. This latest attempt at a bra strangles my ribs, and my ponytail pulls at my scalp. Nothing escapes my alphabet powers. It’s exhausting.” (P. 5)

Being different is not the issue here.

Peta knows she is and has been mimicking people for years – she confesses as one point she is a superb mimic, skilled at reading people and situations so she can react as close to what is expected as possible; as the book beautifully explores, she doesn’t always get it right – in a bid to fit into an overwhelmingly neurotypical world.

What begins to grate on her as the book goes on is that while she is bending herself into pretzel shapes to meet the expectations of an often unforgiving world around her, no one bar Antonia aka Ant or her best friend Jeb or new friend Samanta really seeks to do the same back to her.

Her problem is not fitting in socially; she wants to do that and sees the value in meeting people where they are, both for her sake and theirs.

What begins to weigh upon her is that very few people see someone on the autism spectrum with ADHD and SPD as normal, as someone who is different but not weirdly or strangely so.

Just different.

You can tell that Peta is exhausted by the lengths she has to go to to be one of the neurotypical crowd, and when a romantic misunderstanding on a skiing excursion from the unique College aka secondary school she attends sends her relationships into a messy tailspin, she withdraws into herself, too tired to put herself out there to a world that seems to have little appetite for meeting her halfway.

Anna Whateley (image courtesy Goodreads)

A writer who is “proudly autistic” with ADHD and SPD, and who is part of the “Own Voices” movement in which authors “from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective”, Whateley naturally being a empathetic dimension to Peta’s exploration of what she wants from life and whether she has the skills and the tenacity to live the life she wants.

Much of what makes Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal such a compelling read for people of any age – it is ostensibly a YA book but I can’t think of anyone who couldn’t benefit from being a part of Peta’s life, even if it’s only for an all-too-short 240 pages or so – is that it is as honest as any first person account you’re likely to get.

As Peta twists and turns to fit into with those around her, a desire driven by both real need but also a lack of understanding of what it is she really wants from her interactions (this evolves though as the book goes on), we are party to her internal monologues, a composite of her therapist’s life hints, her own often flawed perception of what people think of her – this is driven by how poorly she’s been treated in the past so you can well understand why she assumes she has got it wrong all the time – and angst so pronounced you wonder how she doesn’t collapse under the weight of it.

It’s this refreshing honesty that makes Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal such a pleasure to read.

Peta, internally at least but eventually externally too as her found family coalesces around her in some powerfully transformative ways, much it driven by her own coming to terms with who she really is and what she wants, doesn’t whitewash some fairly uncomfortable truths about the way her life feels to her, and while we see her smiling and saying the right things, parts of her are breaking apart instead as she thinks she might never have what it takes to really fit in.

“She draws in a breath to say something, pick at the scabs I’ve formed and watch me bleed, but a couple of older men walk in and sit too close. We sip our hot chocolates and I wonder if she will ever see me again.” (P. 131)

The point is of course that she shouldn’t have to fit in.

She should quite simply be accepted for who she is, on her own terms; granted there are a host of societal expectations she or anyone has to meet to make human relationships glide smoothly and easily – that need applies to neurotypical and neurodivergent alike – but too often all the effort is on her side of fence and not on the side of those with whom she interacts.

You know from her desperately honest responses to the ups and downs of the book’s delightfully authentic narrative that all Peta wants is what anyone wants – to be loved and accepted for who she is, to have her uniqueness as a person valued (that is true of anyone) and to be comfortable in her own skin.

The events of Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal force Peta to explore with a great deal of pain and exhausting resolve, whether she is willing to strike out for a life that is far more alive and extraordinary that the one lived safely within the rules since she was little or keeping on playing it safe and keep her rating normal. (The term applies to the way she grades every single encounter she has, especially the ones that really matter, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the closest to what she believes to be normal.)

Anna Whateley’s Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal is a brilliantly real and heartwarming read, a book which takes us deep into the world of the neurodivergent, the full extent of which many of us do not fully appreciate, and in so doing, reminds us that the differences between us are not a liability or some sort of deficiency but something to be valued and to be treated as just as normal as any other expression of humanity because in the end that is exactly what they are.

Just ask Peta.

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