Book review: The Catch

by Marg Vandeleur, Penguin. RRP $22.95

Spritely, sure-footed, rich with colour and authentic understanding of place, The Catch by first-time author Marg Vandeleur maintains its innocence and light-heartedness on a potentially chin-dragging topic: the shortage of suitable men for desperately-ticking women.

At close to 36, curvaceous and pleasantly placid Colette (Letty) is feeling her eggs age as she struggles to recover from a break-up with her longstanding philandering boyfriend, and to find a suitable man with whom to produce the baby for which she longs. A longing that she attempts, though fails, to adequately explain to her child-indifferent best friend, an insouciant lesbian novelist named Jules:

No Jules didn’t feel it. Perhaps that was where her ease, her lightness, came from. The longing for a baby weighted Letty down. It was an undertow to her existence. The further from her grasp it slipped, the more intense the churning.

After a somewhat predictable romp for a suitable man through Melbourne’s tragic dating scene (where angry divorced men and pathologically shy ones fail to arrest her attention), Letty discovers that it’s no stroll through the park finding a suitable donor amongst paternity-longing gay men either. But finally Jules hits gold and introduces her to her match, the queenly and caring Robert. Having abandoned the noisy landmark Fitzroy street cafe Marios as a suitable site for the initial meet and greet, she and Jules set the rendezvous at a pub across the street from a pram-packed park. Robert is quick to list his qualifications for the job:

I’m kind. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not dumb either. I find little things amusing. I’ve always wanted a baby and now my clock is ticking double-time. I’d make a lovely father. And I’ve had all the tests. I’ve got about seven hundred thousand billion sperm or something like that. A lot.

Never self-indulgent, or obviously politically correct (the narrative’s attaching of parental longing to both straight and gay men and women deftly undermines any essentialist understanding of Letty’s quest), Vandeleur paints a picture of the quintessential modern woman facing the “What, no baby?” problem. The problem faced by too many educated, interesting, and accomplished Australian women in finding the right sort of man to love and share the work and sacrifices of parenting before the sands of their fertile years run out.

But while Letty’s arduous journey through donor selection and self-impregnation leave us with no illusions about the significant “catch” attached to the desires of single women for motherhood, and Letty makes no bones bones about her desire to “catch” the right man, neither does she intend to be “caught” in any old relationship simply because she knows her time is running out. Her self-esteem so fundamental to who she is as to need no remark, Letty understands – and proceeds on the principle – that she is better off parenting a donor-bub alone then partnered to a man who doesn’t attract her physically and emotionally (her pet hate is scuffed shoes with a business suit). It’s hard not to like Letty as she doggedly pursues her maternal dreams through “Weekly Weighers” and several failed pregnancy attempts without losing her sense of humour, proportion, or compassion for the various trials of her gang of colourful friends.

Her emotional needs met by her friends, her financial by her own start-up business, Letty seems to demonstrate the truth of recent research findings that while women still want me, they don’t need them. And it is the gap between what women desire, and men are willing or able to produce – at least for those in the current “transitional” generation like Letty – that is causing all the angst.