summer 2008: volume 7: issue 3
Oxonian Review of Books

Also in this Issue:

All that Glitters is (Occasionally) Gold

Kerry Saretsky

Sophie Dahl Playing with the Grown-Ups Bloomsbury, 2007 285 pages £7.99 ISBN 978-0747577775

Despite its gleaming dust jacket, Playing with the Grown-Ups is a nuanced and engaging coming-of-age novel by Sophie Dahl, whose own coming-of-age has proven similarly transfixing. The plot follows Kitty Fitzgerald as she transforms from the young girl who plays innocently with the grown-ups at her grandparents’ idyllic Hay House to a young adult who plays at grown-up games—from sex to lies—while the adults are too consumed by their own growing pains to supervise Kitty’s childhood.

The young and bookish Kitty hides behind her big glasses as much as behind her young and glamorous mother Marina: ‘a beauty, a painter, and a weeper’. Dahl jauntily describes Marina’s relationship with Mr. Fitzgerald, Kitty’s father: ‘She heard the grown-ups say her mother was his kept woman, which didn’t make sense to Kitty, because he hadn’t kept her’. Yoked by her youth to a mother who, having not yet finished her own youth, was too young and wild to discipline her daughter, Kitty from the start is emotionally precocious. Through Kitty, Dahl captures a child’s inability to see the difference between her own emotional aptitude and that of her superiors, part of a classic unknowing disconnect between adult and child, taken from the child’s point of view. Kitty weaves the consciousness of adulthood into her young diction, unaware that she is incapable of fully comprehending such dinner-table-gleaned statements as ‘because of having “pots of money” (said in a whisper) he was perfectly happy to give her mother some of it’.

From this cusp between Kitty’s childish solipsism and adult awareness, the book follows the oppositional developments of Marina, the young glamorous mother, and Kitty, as the latter makes her way into independence and the former backslides into dependency. Kitty, predominantly unsupervised as she is carted from a bleak rural English boarding school to a resplendent Park Avenue mansion, metamorphoses from a slightly dumpy social outcast whose main preoccupations are books and family, to a vampish teenager whose main concerns are the cliché: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. The childish desire to grow up faster evolves from a pre-adolescent dab of Marina’s Chanel No. 5 behind her ear to a virginity lost hours before making a hungover entrance to school.

Kitty learns from her mistakes, partly because of the solid family structure provided by Marina’s parents (her grandparents) and partly because of a few close friends who refuse to let her antics go unpunished; she eventually finds the maturity to remove herself from such a toxic environment. Marina, however, places faith in everything but herself—from gurus to guys—and finally nearly burns out in a morass of pills and alcohol mixed dangerously with disillusionment and disappointment. Thus, it is when Marina’s immaturity hits its nadir that Kitty must ascend to adulthood and become the caretaker not only of herself, but of her shattered mother.

What separates this novel from the scores of cotton-candy chick lit is Dahl’s awareness of and commitment to a literary tradition, what Kitty refers to as ‘the classics’—Dahl is, after all, the granddaughter of ‘classic’ children’s author and memoirist Roald Dahl. Kitty’s grandfather asks if she is reading any ‘lovely Fitzgerald’, echoed in Kitty’s own surname: Fitzgerald. Her nanny is called Nora, her grandfather’s dog Ibsen, and the family cottage is described as ‘a doll’s house’. Furthermore, Marina calls Hay House ‘Never-Never-Land’. The crowning allusion is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, introduced as drunken phrases bellowed into the night by Marina’s equally dissipated older suitor who screams to the Clapham streetlamps that ‘the ladies come and go, they speak of Michelangelo’. Marina, in her breakdown, scrawls on a pad the other half of the poetic duet, ‘Do I dare disturb the universe, in a minute there is time, for decision and revision which a minute will reverse’, watched over by her pug named for Dickens’s Little Dorrit.

Thus, descriptive phrases, family dogs, and drunken dribble all point to Dahl’s literary influences, ones that she readily admits to. Tender is the Night is ‘a book I’ve read and re-read, and when I was writing my book, I was reading it,’ she confessed to the Sky Book Show. Despite the disparate sources and appearances of these allusions, their commonality is the notion of a perfect appearance masking a disfigured reality. Kitty tells her grandfather when she finally has read some ‘lovely Fitzgerald’ in The Great Gatsby that she imagines ‘that Daisy looks like Mummy’. Yes, Marina resembles Daisy both from the interior and exterior. Beautiful, golden, celebrated, and immaculate from the outside, yet ineffectual, frightened, grasping, and impetuous within. The allusions are more appropriate than they may seem, for Hay House in nostalgic memory does become the Never-Never-Land that Kitty and Marina yearn for. When Hay House is similarly described as a doll’s house in which Nora and Ibsen live, Dahl is conjuring a literary backing to Marina’s feelings of entrapment in her father’s home and longing, as she says, ‘God, I want to move to New York…What can I do here? There’s nothing to do, I’ll be stuck here for ever with you and the bloody chickens.’

While the allusions demonstrate a literary awareness and appropriateness on the part of the author, however, they simultaneously highlight a gap in achievement: Dahl has confessed that reading Fitzgerald ‘made [her] despair because nothing [she] wrote would ever be this good’. Kitty is described as a magpie for her attraction to all that glitters, and Dahl similarly turns her book into a magpie’s nest of literary allusions. The book does seem in the end like a collection of influences and memories: emotions of frustration and entitlement recollected from childhood; items from the past, like Betsy Johnson dresses and copies of Go Ask Alice; and writers who assert their influence on this budding author like the adults do on the budding Kitty.

In the end, Dahl’s book may contain references to such ‘classics’, but it does not belong on their shelf at the bookstore. She lacks a control of plot that is further destabilised by her strategy of alternating chapters of childhood and adulthood in order to imply tragic prolepsis. The device is extraneous, as the tale needs no instigator, and the intervening adult-perspective chapters are marred by trite language and an unfortunate propensity for melodrama and emotional inauthenticity, as when ‘Violet’s laughter turns to sobs’.

These adult chapters, full of high sentiment and low writing, seem an afterthought that tarnish a book that is otherwise salvageable for its ability to ensure a reader’s empathy with the youthful protagonist. Dahl accomplishes this effectively—at least for those readers under thirty whose adolescence was similarly full of Full House reruns and Jaffa Cakes and ‘Killing in the Name’ on the radio. Such references may be too specific for a wider audience but they will speak engagingly to a younger generation. Dahl also masterfully traces the inner monologue of Kitty’s growing mind, from the girl whose ‘second favorite word’ is ‘sexist’, and for whom when ‘she turned eleven it had been replaced by “alacrity”’—to the later Kitty, who ‘hobbled up the hill, looking as dignified as she could, with her skirt flying in the wind, as flimsy as a handkerchief, one crippled patent stiletto tapping an angry war march on the cold pavement’.

This latter quotation speaks to the promise of Dahl’s lyricism, recaptured in such excerpts as ‘her grandfather, Bestepapa, had hands that were true as butcher’s blocks, and his voice was like the beginnings of a bonfire’ and ‘Kitty always measured the passing of time by the calendar of her birthday, which fell, inevitably, like a spent plum, during the first week of autumn term’. For her unique, hodgepodge lyricism and her ability to convey with remarkable lucidity the true sentiment of a young mind, it is worth overlooking the self-indulgence and lack of control that characterise both this first-time author and her young protagonist.

In setting out the examples of Fitzgerald, Ibsen, Eliot, and Barrie, Dahl at least asserts her aspirations, if not her current abilities. In the future, readers would hope to find evidence of these influences in her literary style rather than in mere mention. Dahl would do well to pare down the magpie nest of her writing, tossing out the extraneous and distracting rhinestones (‘she looks at her husband’s broad back, every inch of which she cherishes’) and hoarding only the real gems that demonstrate character instead of stating it, that push the plot along without an idle spinning of flashy wheels. The reader sees Dahl, again like Kitty, ‘teetering long-legged toward her future,’ and hopes that as an author, she will learn not to be dazzled by what sparkles only cheaply in her own writing. For it is not by mentioning her influences, but by learning from them, that she will ever achieve a place with ‘the classics’—it remains to be seen if she aspires to ornate estate jewelry or mass-produced copies.

After all, ‘all that glitters is not gold’ is the book’s great espousal. Playing with the Grown-Ups, like its gleaming silver cover, is covered in glitter, coated in references to Vogue and Chanel, Park Avenue, and the King’s Road. But unlike the pearly portraits of Marina that adorn the family’s Manhattan home, Dahl’s writing over-exposes the film, laying bare the inside at the expense of the perfect, and beautiful, exterior. Though the Park Avenue house is described as ‘LUXURY’ replete with a ‘chauffeur who carried her duffel bag like it was a Vuitton trunk,’ it is a home that offers no comfort or protection for a young girl. It may have ‘LUXURY,’ but it has no rules and certainly no permanence. And while Marina is ‘so pretty’ in her ‘black-and-white photograph…by Irving Penn,’ her inner state is less like the perfect model exterior, and more like the exposed, raw woman portrayed in the novel’s final scene, when she is described ‘in her hospital nightgown with mascara staining her cheeks’: a mess. What preoccupies Dahl, like Fitzgerald, is the portrayal of the poignant magnetism of something not golden, but gilded, and the dangerous disappointment that follows once the gold leaf has inevitably worn away.

Copyright © 2008 Oxonian Review of Books