I’m not surprised that the average Goodreads ratings for this book is a so-so 3.24 out of 5 stars at the moment I’m writing this review. It reaffirms the fact that taste is relative, because I actually really enjoyed the simple plot and the complicated characters. It’s a plainly beautiful story.
Like many others, what first caught my eye about this book was the author herself. Anyone would have high expectations of the granddaughter of Roald Dahl, who’s also a legit supermodel. But secondly, it’s that I’ve always enjoyed coming-of-age stories, stories of the long and complicated journey of a little girl to becoming a full-grown woman. Growing up, I relied on characters in books to navigate my way around adulthood whenever the adults in my life aren’t being very reliable.
That said, this book is a quick read. What I love about “Playing With the Grown-Ups” was how honest our protagonist was behind it all. In the story, we follow the young voice of Kitty from her idyllic childhood in rural England through adulthood. Kitty is the result of the affair between a married man and a young, wild, painfully beautiful painter, Marina. The young mother is so beautiful, she’s lionized by everyone she meets and gotten herself all kinds of men coming in and out of her life. Kitty had always looked up to her mother, as any kid would, and took a liking in showing her off at school because her beguiling beauty is the reason everyone wants to be friends with her. It’s natural for kids to see their parents as their role model, but as you will see in this story, Kitty has to fight with this nature and put her happiness first in order to really make it out alive and well. She is basically the glue of the whole family.
Kitty’s adolescence has been a tumultuous ride from boarding schools to New York to a spiritual guru’s ashram and back to England. Every time she moves, she has to find the elusive balance between identifying herself with her peers and with her unconventional mother. Not to mention that she also carries a huge responsibility to care for her two younger siblings that wasn’t even fathered by the her own whenever her mother is being unreliable. There’s not much to say about Kitty’s father other than he’s wealthy, childless in his marriage, and that he’s the love of Marina’s life, so he doesn’t have much influence on Kitty other than providing a faint sense of security by paying for her education and supporting Marina’s impulsive, rebellious lifestyle. That’s basically half of the book. Something happens in the middle that broke this safety net, and Marina went downhill from there, and Kitty started picking up the wildness of it all – sex, drugs, bad influences and more.
We can sense the humble beginnings of this crazy journey she has to put up with by looking at one of my favorite monologues in the book, where Kitty was still in her pre-teen years, still a “good girl” that she is but struggled to be validated. She has just went through the bullies and rejection by the snobs at her boarding school, and after having moved to the U.S., made a beautiful friend in her new school and wanting to admit to her that she’s only “[…] pretending to be pretty, but you’re a proper beauty like my mother is a proper beauty, and I’m not really cool, everyone just thinks I’m cool because I’m new and I’m from England.”
What broke my heart most was that toward the end, her younger siblings trusted her more than they trust their own mother in their caregiving. Even though at the time I could imagine it was difficult for her to swallow this truth, considering she’s only a 16-year-old who’s just trying to break free into adulthood, the trust actually plays huge role in her choices later on that finally leads to a resolution with her mother.
I also love Dahl’s literary style – very poetic, eloquent, and easy-to-read at the same time. I’d recommend this for any woman who’s looking for a beautiful escape, or just a stylish summer read.