The Grownup (27 October 2015) by Gillian Flynn
The Grownup is a short story. A very short story. It originally appeared in Rogues, an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin, in 2014; it's obviously being republished now, separately, because of Flynn's fame - and just in time for Halloween! That doesn't mean there isn't anything to enjoy here - and, I mean, I wanted to read it - but I question the decision to publish it as its own volume. With three pages of praise for Flynn's novels at the front, you're 9% into the ebook before you even get to the beginning.
But what a beginning it is: I didn't stop giving hand jobs because I wasn't good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.
Our narrator is nameless; a con woman turned sex worker turned con woman again - she's now posing as a 'psychological intuitive', pretending she can read people's auras and psychically heal their problems. It's easy money, until she meets Susan Burke. Susan opens her appointment by saying, 'my life is falling apart'. Since this is Flynn's approximation of gothic horror, Susan turns out to live in a gloomy mansion, Carterhook Manor - 'all elaborate, carved stonework' and 'long, baleful windows' - and there's something not quite right about her stepson, Miles... The narrator agrees to go to Susan's house (for a decent fee, of course) because she's 'trying to move into the domestic aura-cleansing business', but she gets more than she bargained for with Miles.
The first quarter of The Grownup is Flynn's oeuvre compacted. Seedy settings. A generous dash of sex. A not-like-the-other-girls female narrator with a fucked-up childhood and a sardonic, knowing voice. A main character who balances right in the middle of the likeable-unlikeable divide: she's smart-mouthed, incisive and funny on the one hand; arrogant, smug and judgemental on the other. Are you supposed to be on her side? Hate her guts? Who's the bad guy? Will you see the next twist coming? And the one after that?
I won't give away the exact nature of what happens in the rest of the tale, but I don't think any existing fans of Flynn will be surprised to learn that it's darkly funny, with a couple of big reveals. It's a good little story, but I think Flynn's style works best when she has room to really put down roots for her characters and flesh them out in full grotesque detail. Her characters are her great strength, and a short story like this one - a horror story, an homage to the classics and all their cliches, that by its very nature has to be plot-driven - doesn't showcase them properly. The Grownup needs to be at least three times longer than it is to accommodate everything it tries to squash in: the fascinating protagonist and her history, Susan and her family and their history, the background of Carterhook Manor, the 'horror' itself, and all the gothic tropes the story tries to honour or satirise or whatever. That first quarter is strong, as is the ending, which - like all the direct references to books and book clubs and defining oneself with terms like 'bookworm' - feels like a sly wink at the reader from Flynn, a little bit of a pisstake. But everything between those two points - especially the climax - seems rushed.
The original title of the story, 'What Do You Do?', is a much more appropriate name for it than 'The Grownup', but I suppose it wouldn't have looked quite as snappily Gone Girlish on the cover. At various points within the story, the narrator imagines a future scene in which she's asked that question - how she will answer, how she'll look when she's saying it. I'd sit by a fire and nibble on Brie and say, I'm a small business owner, an entrepreneur, if you will. (Not for nothing did the repeated phrase bring to mind Patrick Bateman answering 'I'm into, oh, murders and executions mainly.')
At the end, another 8% of the ebook is an extract from Dark Places. I've got to admit I'm quite glad I received a review copy of this; it's so slight, I can't quite convince myself it's worth paying for. That, then, is the main reason this is getting a middling score from me. It'd definitely be interesting to read a proper collection of short stories from Flynn.
I received an advance review copy of The Grownup from the publisher through NetGalley.
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