For the pun of it
THE MEN, ALL five of them in a room of 250 women, are laughing. But it's a cringing, wriggling sort of laugh.
'Have your testicles retracted yet?' coos author Kathy Lette.
The women roar with appreciative laughter as their wine glasses are topped up by waiters, mostly young men, in aprons with lettering proclaiming: How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints) - the title of Lette's latest book. 'That was Kathy's idea,' says her publicist. Now there's a surprise.
Later, a waiter, whose apron I admired, thrusts it at me, snarling: 'You can have it. I don't do aprons.'
Nor do most men - one of the legion of male faults and foibles on which Lette has built her best-selling career, winning fans (almost all women) in more than 100 countries. Hard-pressed translators - women, one assumes - e-mail her a zillion queries as they translate her puns and one-liners into 17 languages. 'Not too many heterosexual men slip between my covers,' she says of her readership.
This is a literary lunch like no other: plenty of lovely lunch, not much literature - more a stand-up comedy routine Lette calls 'just a bit of girl talk', honed to a razor-sharp edge by her wit and, she admits, trying out her lines at dinner parties.
'Husbands - we all want to kill them some of the time, don't we girls?' Lette begins, to loud cheers. For the squirming men - 'emotional bonsai' - it's all downhill from there.
Lette has been introduced to her adoring fans by a slightly uncomfortable male newspaper columnist who calls her 'exquisitely subversive' and a 'truly dangerous woman'.
'I just write the way women talk when there aren't men around,' she says, pinching his bottom to cheers as he edges from the podium.
When she calls for 'any little quessies, girls', a woman leaps to her feet and says, 'I'm from Sydney, too, and I love you Kathy'. Another, speaking for her table of female workmates, asks for tips - not on how to kill her hubby, but her work colleagues. She doesn't mean the women.
'Skewer them with your pen,' says Lette. This time she isn't speaking literally. 'Poetic justice is the only true justice,' she says. And she should know - she has been married for 16 years to Australian-born, London-based, human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, whom she met when she stood in for an indisposed Kylie Minogue on one of his Hypotheticals TV shows.
'Some men say to me, 'You're a man basher',' she says. 'I say, 'Look, it's still a man's world. We're still getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling.' I think they deserve a bit of a knee-capping. It empowers women.'
Certainly, the women at her lunches - not coiffed and perfumed ladies-who-lunch, the mainstay of so many literary talk-fests, but slightly dishevelled, put-upon mums and working girls in their lunch hours - identify with what she says.
'If I have a gift at all, it's to put into words what women are thinking,' she says. 'I always write the book I wish I'd had when I was going through something.'
Her husband, who reads all eight or nine drafts of each of her books, just as she reads his - 'I lower his tone and he raises mine' - understands that that is what she does best.
'He understands that I can put into words what women are thinking, that it's empowering. He's a human-rights lawyer - he's got a shock absorber strapped to his head. Nothing shocks him.'
Lette, whose books tackle subjects such as love and lust, motherhood and breastfeeding, is the working wives' idol - not afraid to say what's on their minds, but slim, groomed and glam in a little red-and-white suit and killer red heels.
'Men seem to go from puberty to adultery. They think monogamy is something dining-room tables are made of,' she says in a voice still redolent of Sydney's southern beaches, where she grew up. The women roar. The men - creatures who 'regard going to the toilet as a leisure activity' - sink a little closer to their baby chicken with lemon couscous.
When she gets on to sex - and Lette always gets onto sex - telling her 'darlings' that 'we have to teach men that mutual orgasm is not an insurance company', their faces almost hit the panna cotta.
It's a masterly performance, although Lette finds her Melbourne crowd a little more subdued than she's used to. Although many of her best one-liners are also in her books and she admits to practising them (citing the example of Mae West, who worked up her repartee with joke books), her 'girls' don't care if they've read them before. In fact, they're at their most enthusiastic since her latest book was released, Lette says. 'Women are really relating to this one. They're really, really saying, 'This is my life'.
'It's really lovely when you strike a chord with your readers, and it doesn't happen with every book. There are certain issues that really chime.'
In particular, the women love two chapters: the one in which the working mother juggles a dozen chores as she tries to make breakfast for herself and her kids and get them ready to face the day while her husband shaves, sits on the loo and reads the paper, arriving at his office refreshed.
'The other chapter they love is the one about 'the hand' - married sex,' Lette says. 'There's so much emphasis on sex before marriage, but not on sex after marriage. Women used to feel guilty about having too much sex before marriage, but now women feel guilty about not having much sex after marriage. Women are exhausted.
'When we slip into bed, the only thing we fantasise about is a good night's sleep. We're just falling asleep, dreaming of a good seven hours, and then you get 'the hand,'' she says, clamping a hand onto her left breast. When she repeats this at her lunch the women don't laugh - they're too busy nodding agreement.
Although Lette says she researches scientifically - over cappuccinos with her girlfriends - she also cites numerous surveys showing that men aren't doing their share of the housework and that women now have less sex than their supposedly repressed sisters in the 1950s. Most divorces now are initiated by women.
'I wrote this one from the heart, to exorcise my own frustrations - the working-mother thing. And my husband, too - he's brilliant, but he's still a mere male,' she says, adding her line that although men shirk housework by saying they can't multi-task, she's sure they could manage it at an orgy.
In interviews, as on stage, Lette is a non-stop comedy act, the one-liners outpacing the reporter's shorthand. But she does serious on request and says the humour isn't so much a persona she takes off at home as a form of self-defence all girls should learn. 'When you're on a book tour you do need a certain amount of armour. I never go out without a couple of one-liners up my trouser leg. But I think women should do that anyway. When I go to high schools to give talks I teach them some one-liners to put men down.'
Lette has come a long way for a Sydney surfer girl who left school at 15 and at 17 co-wrote Puberty Blues, an Australian coming-of-age novel about teen sex and young girls' hankering after surfer boys called Bruce.
This fiercely intelligent woman, who has been writing since the age of 10, has built an international career on pinpointing female angst and giving women a laugh about it between the tears.
She has just spent four months as writer-in-residence at London's Savoy Hotel, staying in a GBP4,000 ($57,000)-a-night suite and following in such famous footsteps as Somerset Maugham. And although she jokes that the best part was having the concierges help her children with their homework, Lette knows she has achieved true fame: a drink named for her - Kathy's Cassis - in the hotel's American bar.
'I was worried about the number of men going around saying they'd had me,' she tells her audience. Luckily, her old friend, author Julian Barnes, is there with reassurance that could equally apply to her books and lunches: 'Oh, Kathy, as long as they said you went down well.'
ON THE SIDE
Genre Contemporary 'chick lit comedy' fiction
Latest title How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints), Simon & Schuster, $188
Family Married to human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson; son Julius, 15, daughter Georgie, 12
Previous jobs Newspaper columnist, playwright and television sitcom writer
Previous titles Eight novels, including Puberty Blues (co-author), Foetal Attraction, Mad Cows, Nip'n'Tuck, Dead Sexy
Next project Between books
What the papers say
'Forget all the pretenders to the chick-fic crown, the tiara belongs to Kathy Lette, and she's got the novels to prove it.' - Daily Mirror
A few of her favourite reads
by William Makepeace Thackeray
'With tongue in cheek and lashings of chutzpah, Becky Sharpe was the Madonna of her day, flaunting tradition and challenging hypocritical sexual mores. Thackeray's savage social satire on the class and sex wars is still tantalisingly topical today and made me want to become a writer.'
The Female Eunuch
by Germaine Greer
'Germaine Greer is a missile, homing in on strategic misogynists and nuking them. Greer's ground- breaking work emboldened women to think of ourselves as more than human handbags to be draped attractively over the arm of some Knight in Shining Armani.'
The Kama Sutra
'I grew up with surfie blokes who thought 'sex drive' meant doing it in the car [possibly because of that little sign on the rear-vision mirror which said, 'Objects in this mirror may appear larger than they are'.] The Kama Sutra revealed to me that 'mutual orgasm' isn't an insurance company. (Warning: These sexual positions are for amateurs. Please try them in your own home.)'
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
by Anita Loos
'This clever satire on the cream of society, and how it curdles, showed me that you can be funny but still feminist. Determined to acquire High Life Visas, Loos' female characters mountaineer up from the lower social slopes by performing the gymnastic yet subtle feat of holding a man at arm's length - without ever losing her grip on him.'
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
'In which Lizzie Bennett is determined to prove that she is more than just a life-support system to an ovary.'