30 Oct 2006, Comments Off on What I’m reading: Waterlemon

What I’m reading: Waterlemon

Author: Helen

This is a book of the triumph-over-adversity genre, or what Pav calls pathography. It’s about the writer’s husband, Jhonnie Blampied, who suffered a brain injury when he fell off his bike. The writer,Ruth Ritchie, is a film and TV reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Of course, I bought the book because of my sister in law. Prepared to identify, learn more, and all that. Ritchie’s husband’s injury was different in cause, severity, age and health of injured person, but their main trajectory was similar; Sudden catastrophic event, spell in ICU, move to hospital ward (and realisation that they’ll live, but with what deficits not yet known); Rehab; then home. But apart from this skeletal plot outline, and the knowledge that personal tragedy is what it is despite differences in circumstance, the book didn’t really speak to me as a fellow traveller on the ABI road.

Talking of the SMH thing, you can’t shake the feeling throughout this book that it’s part of a broadsheet Lifestyle section, with its crisp David Jones bedlinens, gorgeous platefuls of exquisite food, and articles about people in seven-figure houses with children who go to the best schools in crisp straw hats. Yes, I do sound mean and politics-of envy-ish; How can I say that about a woman whose husband, the father of her two children, met with such a horrible accident just when there was a three-month baby at home? All I can say is despite the undeniable traumas she went through, the family’s lifestyle was so replete with financial and social cushions it bears scant resemblance to what a more “typical” person might go through. It makes me feel like the Fairfax lifestyle magazines do; impressed, but not able to identify.

Husband Jhonnie (Bogans are mocked when they misspell their names, but not the Naw Shore) is a former highly-paid CEO who has just taken a golden parachute in order to work as a consultant. Let’s just say that the stress of a typical family struggling with the sudden incapacity of the main breadwinner isn’t apparent. Yes, school fees and child support get a mention. But the crunch never really comes. There really is an awful lot of spending in this book.

When the author receives the fateful phone call, it is necessary to tell us she’s between “egyptian cotton” sheets. A strong feature of the book, as this review points out, is the relentless food fetishism. Many writers bring out the beauty and the poetry of food, but many of the food descriptions in Waterlemon are a litany of expensive purchases. Although numerous laksas and other (not McDonalds) takeaways are consumed, the home and restaurant cooking as described is jaw-dropping (and droolmaking, I have to admit). Beef can’t just be beef, but is “fat boy Angus” or “those amazing little spicy cubes of Wagyu beef they do so well”. Lamb has to be “thick organic lamb cutlets” and “excellent lamb racks”. Fish is John Dory, veal “White Rocks” (what the hell is that, anyway?). No corners appear to be cut in this house, there is no end-of-the-week juggling of mince and Tofu and tinned tuna to eke out a household budget (there is no mention of a budget).

There’s the baby, of course. A three month old baby, at such a time. Major stress. But there’s also a difference… he has a full-time nanny.

…Last night Anna Ritchie and I ate some fat-boy aged Angus steaks (roast leeks, pumpkin and snow peas). Esther stayed for dinner and demonstrated enormous vegetarian tolerance of all that rare beef, and kept her filthy capsicum risotto to herself.
…Patrick is mostly in the capable care of Meera, an amazing woman who started working with us a month ago. she already has a tight relationship with both the boys and can clearly do a better job running the household than moi. (See, if we didn’t have any help with the children, this never would have happened.)

But one must economise:

My car went yesterday. We won’t be needing a two-door convertible any time soon. So I’m driving Jhonnie’s new Audi. This is the first new car Jhonnie has ever owned… It arrived around the same time as Patrick, and he loves it nearly as much. Chock full of very Jhonnie toys, seven seats, great stereo and a chassis that goes up and down – presumably for the change in terrain between Cremorne and Elizabeth Bay. His favourite toy is the sat nav…”

At one point financial reality seems to be about to intrude. There are mentions of this or that income stream coming to an end. But, since her little boy starts school at Cranbrook soon after Jhonnie comes home – fees currently start at $12, 384 for Prep-2 and end at $19,734 for years 11-12), they clearly don’t end up on struggle street. When Jhonnie finally comes home, to celebrate, they book tickets to fly to New York to see The Producers on Broadway. And so on.

Yes, I sound like a sourpuss old sour grapeser. But it’s hard to identify with Ritchie. She didn’t like the social worker at the hospital; well, fair enough, and he was probably no genius, but how many of us would say “…we talked about getting him fired…”? The constant disdain got to me- in the hospital: “I haven’t caught public transport since school….I don’t see a lot of miserable government-issue public spaces on a regular basis…” and driving to the Rehab: “…I’d escaped the tyranny of peak hour traffic in the clogged arteries that pump the pergola-building masses from their renovated homes to their very promising jobs”.

The book always seems to be on the edge of a revelation about how different, and how privileged, her experience is compared to the pergola-building, nannyless, sausage-eating masses, and their representatives in adjacent hospital beds, but it never comes.

There’s another strand through this book, and it’s horribly riveting, though nothing specifically to do with brain injury. In a toe-curlingly personal, remorseless and fascinating way, like some personal bloggers, Ritchie trashes her extended family and her husband’s ex so utterly and in such detail (publishing scores of personal emails, verbatim, throughout the book) that you can never see her going back to having any kind of relationship with them again. Which, when I thought about it, was unfair on the subject and raison d’etre of the book, whose family it was. (The writer’s own family, of course, are uniformly lovely). While the family might well be as dysfunctional as they’re made out to be, what now, now that all the family’s personal failings have been hung out in the village square for everyone to see? While the ex might well be as clueless a waste of space as the writer makes out, her portrayal is an extreme trashing of a reputation, out in a locally published, popular work of nonfiction (and one which her two stepchildren- the children of the trashee– are bound to read one day). Like the AGE reviewer, I felt uncomfortable and thought that some fundamental boundary had been crossed. But where is that boundary? I admit it’s difficult. One hopes it doesn’t come back to bite her one day, but after the Pergola-building masses, does one really care?

So, two stars for this book as a realistic taste of what life with a brain injury might be like, but five stars as a juicy deckchair read for those who’d delight in a raw expose of how the Other Half Responds to trauma, in all its bitchy, gourmandising glory.

Comments (0)

  • Blue says:

    Thank you for the review, I was contemplating getting this book for my mother (both my brothers have ABI – different causes/ages etc). Definitely won’t now, just reading your review made me want to scream and throw the book at the authors head with excessive force!

    I haven’t found any book that describes or parallels what we went through with each of them…

    I found ‘Tim’ by Colleen McCullough to be good in general terms – dealing with the innocence and naivity, but wasn’t any help at dealing with the behavioural issues associated with dealing with a 6’3 man who can’t control his emotions….

    I hope your Sister-in-Law is improving and that they have been getting the assistance they require.

  • shula says:


    It sounds perfectly…..


  • boynton says:

    Yes, it sounds pru’n’tru snooty to moi.
    If such trauma doesn’t cause pause, or reflection on ummm… teh human condition as opposed to one’s own condition, or a wider compassion, then what is the point in sharing it with the masses? Maybe this is a subgenre: Gated Pathography.

  • Helen says:

    Just as a disclaimer, we have not built a pergola. However, I think we are pretty much in the pergola-builders ballpark (we do have a timber verandah, which is just as much a suburban cliche.)

    Blue, two brothers with separate ABI’s? That is serious stuff. It must be very hard for you. and your Mum.

    The book is perfectly awful, but in a “fascinatingly awful, can’t look away” way. It would be worth getting from the library. “Gated Pathography” is good.

  • Blue says:

    Thanks, final exams will be over soon (YAAYYYYAYYY for ever). So I’ll add to my ‘not a journal article or academic text’ reading list. 🙂

  • JahTeh says:

    Just reading this post made me feel creepy. I trash my ex on the blog regularly but I wouldn’t put it in a book and I’m so glad her hubbie has sat nav, that way he’ll never be lost in the awful suburbs with the pergola builders.

  • Kate says:

    I used to quite enjoy Ritchie’s snarky takes on stuff in the SMH, but I won’t be reading this book.

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    Thanks Kate, the penny has just dropped; I’ve just realised who we’re talking about. I can see that little Witch-of-Endor dinkus in my mind’s eye.

    You’re lucky you found enjoyment in the snarky takes. Personally I’ve always disliked that woman’s cultural commentary, which I found superficial and bitchy in the extreme, to say nothing of completely unsullied by any intellectual cred in the form of cultural theory, or anything else, really. And now I know why.

  • kate2 says:

    Hmm, the bit in the Good Weekend a while ago was ok, but not riveting. It didn’t make me want to get the rest of the book.

    It’s a topic that deserves a really good book. I worked in a public rehab hospital for a while. By the sounds of things Ms Ritchie may have had trouble seeing past the state of our office (the walls were peach, and had holes in them where shelving had been removed, and the taps had ‘Do Not Drink the Water’ signs all over them) to the care provided by the staff. Our patients got treatment at home, so there was no urgency to provide us with a nice workspace.

    We did get a new office eventually – with grey walls, no windows, and the smell of chlorine emanating from the hydrotherapy pool.

  • Kate says:

    I just used to think it was funny when she made fun of Australian Idol…

  • Kate says:

    … like that’s so hard to do.

  • Helen says:

    Sorry not to participate much in discussions, too much to do this week.

  • Little Red says:

    Hi Helen,

    Completely unrelated to your post, but I saw a comment you left on John Quiggan’s blog and, not knowing how to navigate this site too well yet, came here to follow a thought with you.

    I’ve seen a few sentiments expressed in the last few days on the issue of English in our schools, including a lot of anti-postmodernism and then I stumbled upon your comment. Can you elaborate on what your beef is? I’m really interested!

  • Helen says:

    Was it the one on the thread, “Exxon: We believe in global warming, so we shouldn’t be criticised for funding global warming denialists”?
    Helen Says:
    October 23rd, 2006 at 1:00 pm
    Hmm, isn’t ExxonMobil rather a large corporation?

    This was in response to this discussion.

    Was that the one you mean?

  • Suse says:

    I heard her interviewed on the radio a few weeks ago and thought the whole thing sounded interesting until she started going on and on about how family let them down, the ex was useless etc.

    Reading your review confirms that I really really do not want to read this book.

    (I wonder if Jhonnie is pals with Siimon?)

  • tigtog says:

    I would have thought that the family members whose emails have been published have a copyright action against her.

    Just because the email is in her computer doesn’t mean she owns the copyright on others’ words in those emails.

  • Thanks for the review Helen. Stopped me from buying the book. Having had an ABI a few years back I tend to buy any books on the subject. I’ll be waiting for the library to get it.

  • Yes Comic sans seems so apt for my blog….You win the prize for being the first to notice……I had a 3 legged blue tongue lizard that I found…The park ranger told be to feed it watermelon…so I got one from the shop and hollowed it out and the lizard climbed in side….after about a week when it got a bit on the nose I went and another melon…..Lefty had a great time…

  • Helen says:

    Would that be the Dublin or the County Clare o’Flatulences?
    FXH has been there recently, maybe he met some of them/

  • My lot came from Clare region but most were hung for various crimes and various facial expressions. Some fled to Perth and bred with the local gentry.

  • L. says:

    At first wondered if the author hadn`t mentioned the detail of her “egyptian sheets” to make the point that life before her husband`s injury was charmed, so she never believed anything like this could happen to her (i.e., “Our life was so perfect that we even had egyptian sheets, and then….”)

    But then I got to the part where you quote her talking about the “pergola-building masses” and almost swallowed my tongue.

    This reminds me — years ago, we were living in Los Angeles when ex-president Reagan announced he had Alzheimers (which could explain a lot about his last term in office, but I digress…). I remember reading a profile of Nancy Reagan, watching her husband slip away. Sure, it was sad — it`s sad for anyone to lose a loved one.

    But many of the letters to the editor that followed were from people who couldn`t afford any support for their Alzheimers-afflicted loved ones, who were waiting for public assistance, and who were acting as primary caregivers. These people faced daily challenges Nancy couldn`t even fathom, and it showed how far her experience was from the norm.

  • Helen says:

    That’s it.
    That is exactly it.
    The rest of us would be facing losing our despised pergola-abutted houses.
    I’ve been meaning to blog this – no time at present – go and read.

  • I do have a pergola and it’s great with grapevines and wisteria over it. I’ve a Hills rotary clothesline too.

  • Helen says:

    FX, you’re obviously beyond help.

    Here’s another f’n scary post– a shorter one from Faux Real Tho.

    This will be our lives post- Medicare.

  • Aqua says:

    I’m glad to hear that somebody finally posted this side of the review. I was sick to death of thinking no one noticed how extravageant everything was. The ex is crazy though, I’ve met her!

  • Helen says:

    I’m sure that’s true-but you should check out MY family some time!
    Oh the stories I could tell…

  • suse says:

    I read this post a week ago and thought it was interesting as I’d seen the extracts from the book but only skimmed them. Anyway, double coincidence, I mentioned your review to co-parent today as she’d been talking about hearing a similarly class-bound woman interviewed on the radio. About two hours later we were in a local park and she pointed out to me the subject of the book, RR’s husband! He was with the dog, apparently on his own. At a later point he exchanged smiles with co-p over the dog and she said she thought he was a nice person, just from his vibe.

  • beth says:

    Thanks for posting this. I read the article. I heard the Life Matters interview. I was planning on buying the book. And now I won’t. I deal with a lot of medical files every week and they are all far more similar to what happened to your sister-in-law than Ruth Ritchie’s privileged experiences of trauma. Of course, everyone would prefer to be moneyed up in her situation, but it seems a little tasteless (pardon) to parade your Egyptian cotton sheets, aged Angus steaks and lack of pergola. It’s off my list.

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