Playing with Grown-Ups tells the coming of age story of a British girl, Kitty, with a troubled family. Kitty's family includes deeply loving grandparents, twin siblings, as well as a tremendously troubled single mother. Kitty's growth and development is clearly shaped by her mother's activities, which include falling in with a religious cult, acquiring, first, an alcoholic boyfriend, and later, a serious drug habit. Throughout the novel Marina, Kitty's mother behaves erratically and generally inappropriately. She is generally physically and/or emotionally absent from Kitty's life, and Kitty deeply craves her love and attention, which always seem to be directed elsewhere. All of this sounds like the stuff of a tragic documentary, and in many ways it is. The tale of Kitty's adolescence often reads like a runaway train. It's clear that Kitty is setting herself up for unfortunate consequences. It is always clear to the reader that some love and attention from Marina would likely change the course of Kitty's life, though that attention never comes. While Kitty's story is clearly unfortunate, the book is not all dreary. This is in many ways a funny book, with a humorous cast of characters, and there's mirth to add life to a sad tale.
While this is a book with some engaging attributes, it also has some significant problems. The characters are sympathetic; I found myself actively reading to find out what happened to Kitty. The story is engaging. Those praises aside, there are problems that outweigh the benefits. The ending of the story is completely predictably, and the author's use of forshadowing reveals the ending almost immediately. The writing is so peppered with pop culture references that it dates the text, and makes it more arduous to read than it should be. Other reviewers have described the writing as "clunky," and I would agree.
The two most significant problems, however, are that first, significant parts of this plot are entirely unbelievable. Second, a number of the most nuanced and important emotional parts of the plot are not part of the writing-- they're simply assumed, ignored. This is especially true of the interactions between Kitty and her mother when all of the major life changes are happening. I have certainly read other British fiction that incorporates these tactics: unbelievable plots, pop culture references (Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series comes to mind), but other authors (like Kinsella) use these tactics far more effectively, and produce engaging, readable books. In no small part, I suspect this is because Kinsella, et. al. are writing books intended to be humorous, whereas Dahl is trying to write serious literature. Incorporating these devices simply doesn't work with the dark themes Dahl is trying to address.