Breakfast on Pluto
by Patrick McCabe
Warning: This review is particularly full of spoilers, since I compare it against the film version and I didn’t like the ending.
I saw the film version of Breakfast on Pluto a while back, and I absolutely adored the character of Patrick “Kitten” Braden–a romantic and decidedly unserious transwoman who just wants a stable and loving home. Of course, Kitten’s problem is that she’s trans, Irish, and living in the 1970s, during Ireland’s Troubles. I loved the film. It was funny, moving, and wonderfully hopeful at the end.
I decided I had to read the book, of course, since I committed the sin of watching the film first. I knew of the largest change–Kitten is called Pussy in the book–but I didn’t realize just how different the two are. Patrick McCabe adapted it for the screen, so I feel I can compare the two without assuming the film already has a strike against it.
The novel is supposedly composed of writings Pussy’s therapist, the kindly Dr. Terence, has urged her to write to help with her various issues. Dr. Terence has, rather rudely, transferred to another hospital, leaving Pussy with another issue, but still writing.
She narrates her life so far, which includes being a bombing suspect, her issues concerning the bizarre nature of her parentage, her efforts to find love, and her efforts to find her mother, the absence of whom has shaped her life.
Pussy and Kitten are very much the same character, obviously, and the writing is blissfully immersive. It’s like Pussy is right beside you, smelling of Chanel perfume and gesturing wildly with her perfectly manicured hands at the injustice of having a priest for a father. She’s a marvelously real and charming character, with almost a will of her own–no wonder McCabe decided to cheer her life up in the film.
For things are quite different in the novel. The most jarring was the character of Charlie. In the film, Charlie is Pussy’s best friend, a strong girl who is understandably wrecked by the murder of her lover, Irwin. She even saves Pussy once or twice. While both book Charlie and film Charlie get happy endings, book Charlie absolutely breaks down upon the death of Irwin, and the town’s fierce hatred of her and Pussy lead to the murder of her dog. I have a problem with animal cruelty in fiction–it’s a gut reaction thing that puts me very ill at ease.
Pussy, despite retaining all her charm and other characteristic traits, is very sexual. As an asexual girl, it’s always a little awkward to read sex scenes, but Pussy is flighty enough that it’s not the sex itself that’s awkward. However, there’s one extremely awkward situation Pussy gets herself into, which involves playing a woman’s dead son in a frankly repulsive scenario in return for stunning clothes. Oh, and she’s cheating on her current lover to do so. While Pussy shrugs it off (as she does everything), it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Pussy is not a very organized writer, often going back and forth, and almost forgetting to properly explain the circumstances of Irwin’s death before talking about Charlie’s reaction. She goes off on tangents frequently. The best tangent is what Pussy would do if she had girl bits, which would be to have ten children… and she promptly daydreams about dying gracefully with her massive family around her. This works to further characterize Pussy, but makes piecing together events a little hard. I gasped as Pussy committed acts of terrorism, for them only to be hallucinations brought on by sedatives.
The climax of the story is Pussy’s arrest, suspected of bombing a London night club since she’s Irish and has boy bits. (The film, incidentally, does this very well–everyone in the hospital is concerned for the pretty girl until she’s examined.) She’s so traumatized by the event that she’s reducing to a giggling, dreaming mess. Pussy readily admits that she’s not the strongest person out there, and allows us to see her fever dreams during the holding period. The best involve confronting her father, meeting her mother, and being Ireland’s most feared terrorist in a stunning ball gown. The others don’t stand up to these.
If you look at the book as more of a character study against a very painful historical background, it’s very successful. Pussy is very compelling and charming, just wanting the love of a good and stable man, and doing whatever she can to try and find a loving home.
The book’s ending is weak, though. While Charlie meets someone and has three children, poor Pussy is left alone, having given up her fabulous lifestyle, still dreaming about the possibility of finding a good man and the impossibility of having a child. She never finds his mother, and the worst part is, Pussy is perfectly with it. It’s a very odd thing for such an optimistic, dreamy character to do. It’s sad, and very jarring from the optimistic and very lovely ending she gets in the film.
There are also some violent incidents here and there in the text, committed by the IRA–while it works to illustrate the world Pussy is up against, it’s a bit odd for flighty, apolitical Pussy to write them, save the murder of Irwin.
I find the film to be superior. It streamlines the story, retains the marvelous character of Pussy, and it’s happy without getting rid of its darker side. While I’m glad I read the novel, I don’t think I will again. McCabe couldn’t resist giving Pussy a happy ending the next chance he had, seven years after the book was released.
Bottom line: While Pussy Braden is a marvelous character you absolutely must meet, you’d better do it through the film version of Breakfast on Pluto. Pussy retains all her charm in her original novel, of course, but her life story is more pathetic and sometimes bizarrely vulgar, and not as elegantly streamlined and hopeful as the film adaptation.
I swapped for this book on SwapTree.