When musicians and actors take a turn at writing, the results can definitely be hit or miss. They can range from the run-of-the-mill, recent efforts by Britney Spears, Ted Nugent and Blair Underwood to surprisingly strong efforts like books by Gene Wilder, Mia Kirshner and Ethan Hawke. According to Derek Nystrom, a Professor of English at McGill University, this particular trend has much to do with celebrities’ “star text” or the cultural associations related to a musician or actor’s name due to the press and tabloids. “Authoring a book can thus reinforce, re-inflect, or counter some of the other meanings that are already associated with their star text,” said Nystrom, in an interview with the McGill Tribune.
But, what happens when a British model, whose most (in)famous moment was a nude advertisement for Yves Saint Laurent’s fragrance Opium, decides to write a novel? And when her family also happens to include Roald Dahl as her maternal grandfather and Patricia Neal as her paternal grandmother? Well, the result would probably read a little bit like the latest effort from Sophie Dahl.
Playing with the Grown-Ups is a decent read, but baffling in how it has been perceived as the heralding of some amazing new literary talent. The novel, told in flashback, is the story of Kitty Larsen, who is born and raised in England, but also spends time in the US, and her strained relationship with her mother, Marina, a beautiful, bipolar and bohemian artist. Kitty is an awkward child and teenager, who is caught between English and American cultures and has skewed perceptions of men because she herself is an illegitimate child.
Marina is the kind of mother that most teenagers wish they had because she looks like a model, drinks, does coke and acts like an irresponsible older sister. But when Marina’s confusing ways begin to take their toll on Kitty’s mental state, she begins to realize that she must break with her past and move away from her family.
There’s no question this is primarily a girl’s “coming of age” bildungsroman, one of those books that should only really appeal to women and not too many men. When I first started reading, I found myself empathizing with Kitty as she struggled to be close to her mother, who uses Kitty for emotional support and then thrusts her away when men, like the T.S. Eliot-quoting magician, Mr. Jenkins, enter her mother’s life. I guess I was expecting a female version of Adrian Mole, the protagonist of British novelist Sue Townsend’s series of books.
Dahl is definitely no Townsend nor Helen Fielding, whose Bridget Jones books were enjoyed by all genders. For example, when a fair chunk of this book revolves around Kitty impatiently waiting for menarche (her first period), what does the author expect me to feel? I feel like Dahl attempted to do too much at once because the result is a kind of haphazard, disjointed narrative, which ironically is the kind of life that Kitty leads — thanks to her mother — but probably wasn’t the motivation behind Dahl writing this book.
This novel is confusing for two reasons. First, Dahl never manages to sustain any one specific theme throughout the book, which gives it a kind of green light, red light feel — when it looks like she’s really developing a certain sub-plot, she meanders in another direction and the reader is left wondering what happened. And secondly, there are the subplots themselves — puberty, boarding school, Indian culture, mental illness, suicide — that never get fully developed.
It’s almost impossible not to mention Sophie Dahl’s literary heritage because there is so much of her grandfather, Roald Dahl, in Playing with the Grown-Ups. At times, especially in the first half, this book reads like an adolescent female version of Roald Dahl’s memoir, Boy (1984). Both books involve time spent with Norwegian grandparents; shared horrors for boarding school; and being hazed by upperclassmen.
Then there’s Marina’s fascination with Hinduism when she meets a holy man, changes her name to Lakshmi and becomes the Guru’s disciple. For a day or two, as I plodded through this book, I thought that this was the major theme of the book — the continued British fascination with Indian culture a là The Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie”, Cornershop, and chicken tikka. But, though the Guru is a major figure in the book for the first half, he all but disappears later on, which is puzzling because he’s such a serious influence on Marina’s life and subsequently, that of her children — Sam, Violet and Kitty.
Although she has true literary talent in her DNA, Sophie Dahl should never be compared to her grandfather, who wrote in The Witches (1983), “”It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.” Dahl needs to concentrate on developing her identity as a writer first and if she succeeds, then she should be able to stake her own claim in the British literary world.