Growing up is what Kitty does in Playing with the Grown-ups, but as usual the process isn't always pretty. Oh, in the beginning this story is quirky and thoughtful, just what one would expect from the pen of a granddaughter of Roald Dahl, beloved author of startling children's books. What's more, it's funny and moving, and worth devouring on its own as an Eccentric-Mother-Knows-Best kind of tale.

But this is no children's story. Read far enough, and the pages darken with a kind of coming of age that is only slightly more palatable than, say, Augusten Burroughs' in Running With Scissors. Model, actress and now novelist Sophie Dahl is taking a page from her own adolesence, and Kitty's mother, Marina, turns out to be something of a Lost Girl in a parody of Peter Pan, "a beauty and a painter and a weeper . . . who lived with alacrity," who wrung all she could out of the world she lived in, but yearned for another one that never existed.

Mother of three children by two different men, she leaves the raising of them to Nora, a kind of meta-mother nanny whose faithfulness is implicit throughout the story. Without Nora, Marina would never have had the time to be so reckless herself - a lovely, delightful, toxic forever-child, who sometimes tries to stay on track, but is too often swept beneath the engine of her own and others' weaknesses. Quarreling with her parents, painting artistic pictures (though not selling enough of them), converting to the beautiful sentiments of a New Age guru, falling in love with slightly sleazy men, Marina takes over Dahl's pages, heartwarming at first, then growing into a deeply troubled victim of the pot-and-coke culture and her own fecklessness.

For Kitty, who learns only gradually that her adorable mother is also pitiable, growing up skirts the edge of disaster. Just in time she moves beyond the negotiable hell of boarding schools, dangerous friends and questionable heroes to reach a haven of adult awareness and a mature idea of her mother's tragedy. Playing With the Grown-ups grows beyond charming child's play to a clear-eyed compassion for the world's limitless store of tragic human comedy.

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