Playing with the Grown-Ups
First published in: 2007
This edition: Bloomsbury, 2007
Genre/keywords: fiction, coming of age
(beautiful) cover design: Sarah Morris
Kitty wakes up. It's that dreaded phone call in middle of the night. Something's happened to Kitty's mother Marina. The phone call causes Kitty, who's about to become a mother for the first time herself, to revisit significant moments in her early adolescence, growing up as the daughter of free-spirited Bohemian Marina for a mother.
PLAYING WITH THE GROWN-UPS is about a mother-daughter relationship spiraling out of control – although I doubt there ever even was any control. Marina's behavior has tragic consequences, as Kitty at a very early age begins to take after her mother, dabbling in drugs and sex, effectively growing up too fast – or basically feeling as though she should, because Marina encourages the behavior of her daughter.
The relationship definitely reminds me of White Oleander's, another stunning novel – and a personal favorite – about a toxic mother-daughter relationship, about a daughter trying to break free. While a younger Kitty allows herself to be more influenced by her mother, I do see similarities between Kitty and Oleander's daughter, as they are both very strong and inspiring characters.
GROWN-UPS is more tragic; Marina is a character we loathe because she's irresponsible, and the epitome of "A Bad Mother", but we pity her as well: she does love her daughter, very much. (But in the wrong way.) Kitty's childhood and early adolescence are marked by her mother's bad influence, and while she's growing up too fast by necessity, it isn't until Kitty learns to break free from her mother that she really matures and comes of age.
Despite her various levels of experimentation, Kitty – to the reader – remains innocent, not only because of her youth and naiveté, but also because her character is well developed enough for us to believe "this isn't her". It's her voice, Dahl's writing, that does it. The main character, Kitty, grows on you; as Kitty comes of age, the reader learns to like her. She's a calm and collected voice, a sweet person.
Kitty's gentle personality helps to keep this novel from being too loaded. This kind of material could weigh heavily on a reader, but Dahl keeps it fresh and light, careful to never treat the subject itself like it's unimportant. She allows for wit and subtle humor, and writes an ultimately uplifting novel.
I only wish that this book would have had more body. The ending seems rushed and the characters could have been fleshed out more. I feel I would have loved the book if Dahl had spent more time on it, had developed the story and characters even further. I liked the book, but as I read and review it I keep having this lingering feeling that it had more potential. GROWN-UPS doesn't fail at being a good book, but – and there is that but – it could have been great. More memorable, in any case. It's beautiful, and I wanted more.
GROWN-UPS autobiographical elements to it, and whereas some reviewers (I'm talking about the big shots here) have found this bothersome in some way, it did not trouble me whatsoever. In fact, I found it to be valuable to the story, in that it makes the story more believable and realistic, and easier to connect to Kitty and the book. ("To write well, you have to write what you know.") Plus it isn't as obvious in my opinion: Kitty was a character to me, inspired by Sophie Dahl but not interchangeable.
Sophie Dahl, like Kitty, also has Norwegian grandparents, her grandfather being Roald Dahl, famous author of numerous books including some of my favorite childrens' books. I grew up with his novels – The Big Friendly Giant, Matilda and The Witches being the ones I read most dearly. So naturally when I heard Sophie Dahl, former model, had forayed into writing, I was concerned that perhaps she was writing because she's a Dahl-and-thus-could, but as it turns out she does live up to the last name. She's not riding on her grandfather's fame as an author, I honestly don't feel. I didn't expect to like this book as much as I ended up doing. While GROWN-UPS has its flaws, I would read more of Dahl's work.
GROWN-UPS is mostly a very gently written book, and it's that soft storytelling, that delicateness in both the prose and the plot itself, that makes me vouch for Dahl as a very capable writer in her own right.
– Beautifully written; airy and gentle feel to the prose, so light…
– …but never in such a way as to make the subject matter seem unimportant
– e.g. well balanced 😛
– Kitty is a character to root for, very sympathetic
– Would have liked more development/detail