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Playing With the Grown-ups: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 8, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
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As a child, Kitty lived a somewhat idyllic life in the English countryside with her mother, brother, sister, aunts, grandparents, and nanny. Dahl vividly describes her setting, and one can almost feel the warmth of the sun and the breeze.
But Kitty is not destined to remain there. Kitty's mother, Marina, is presented to the reader as someone who does not make the best choices in life. Kitty herself is the product of an affair Marina had as a teenager with a married man. As the story begins, Marina has just found religion, through Swami-ji, the leader of an unnamed cult.
Though benevolent in intention, the effect of the cult on Kitty's family is dramatic. Soon, Kitty is separated from her family and sent to a drab boarding school, while her mother and siblings go to New York. Her mother becomes a successful painter in New York, and after a single school year, decides that Kitty should join her. She does, and it is in New York that Kitty first begins to follow her mother's example in walking on the wild side.
When the family moves back to London (having been rejected by the cult), Kitty's inhibitions seem to stay in New York. Once in London, she falls in with varying crowds, doing drugs, going to wild parties, and the like. From the loose time references we are given in the book, it is the mid-'90s and Kitty is about 14. Not to be overly naive, but she is far too young to be doing the sorts of things she does (I guess that's where the book gets its title), but even worse is that Marina encourages Kitty's behavior, sometimes even joining her at parties, and passing around the drugs. That Marina genuinely loves Kitty makes this picture even more tragic, as it does not ever seem to occur to Marina that her choices and behavior might be destructive to her children. Finally, Marina takes an overdose and is rushed to the hospital. Kitty calls her grandparents, and is finally able to return to their home.
But, although the scene has remained the same, Kitty herself has changed too much to stay there, and decides to go back to boarding school, this time in Connecticut, to make a new start. But here is where the book fails us. Having detailed Kitty's descent, Dahl leaves her redemption to our imagination. We know only that she does manage to make a stable life for herself. Having spent so much time in the dregs with Kitty, it would have been nice if we could have walked with her a bit on her journey up.
Playing With the Grown Ups consists largely of Kitty's flashbacks. Her childhood was a mad dance of constant change, uncertainty, and her mother's never-ending search for meaning. Kitty was a normal girl until she moved to New York to be with her mother, whose Guru Swami-ji had told her to relocate and take up a career in painting. Kitty tried to act grown up too, wearing her mother's clothes, partying, and experimenting with sex and drugs. Kitty and her family became deeply involved in a Hindu-inspired commune led by Swami-ji and delved deeply into spirituality.
But their new life in New York is short lived. Swami-Ji tells the family to leave New York to avoid imminent "dark times." Marina moves her family to London to start over yet again, but there life became significantly worse. Kitty became involved in drugs and hanging out with the bad kids. By the time Kitty was 15, Marina was doing hard drugs with her daughter and nearly died in Kitty's arms of an overdose. Kitty decided then and there to stop playing "grown-up" and put herself and her future first. She moved back to the United States to start a new life at a boarding school in Connecticut.
This novel was thoroughly engaging. The constant whims of Marina were amusing and sad at the same time. She was a loving mother, but incredibly selfish as well. I wanted to strangle Marina and tell her to put her children's needs before her own. It was frustrating to see how lost the woman was and what a foul influence she was on her children. What sort of mother serves drugs at her daughter's party? Kitty grew up in chaos and experimented with the dark side of life along the way. I felt sorry for her as she struggled to find herself and relieved when she found her way out of her dead-end lifestyle. Had she not, she may have been the one in the hospital from a nervous breakdown instead of Marina. I loved Dahl's fictional memoir format and the detail she put into the storyline. She made a story that could have been dull and depressing a comic read that's hard to put down. I only wish this novel was longer. You'll be touched by Kitty's bravery and strength as she overcomes obstacles and grows into an independent young woman as well.
by Jennifer Melville
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
I found the ending a bit disappointing. After all that we went through with Kitty, it just leaves you to imagine what she has to overcome in order to lead a better life. You obviously know that she was able to overcome her mother's influence and eventually make a life for herself in New York, but you just don't read how she was able to do it (you know this from the first chapter - so I'm not giving anything away). It would have been nice to read how she was able to get herself out of the hole she was in and better herself and her life.
Moving, well-written, tender-hearted coming of age/mother-daughter relationship story. Utterly charming and I couldn't help wondering if some parts were autobiographical. I think anybody who had a slightly unconventional childhood will be able to relate to this in some way.
And just in case you were wondering, Sophie Dahl is Roald Dahl's granddaughter.