“The Grownup” by Gillian Flynn (2014)
Three times I’ve purchased a Gillian Flynn novel, and three times I’ve come away from the experience quite pleased that I did. Having a little bit of time between full-blown books, Flynn decided to pen “The Grownup” as something of an ode to the traditional ghost or haunted house story. Originally published as a short story in an anthology overseen by “A Song of Ice and Fire” mastermind George R. R. Martin, “The Grownup” now stands on its own as one of the thinner physical releases you’re bound to see on a bookshelf; you can easily read this thing in an hour.
Working in such a tight space in terms of length, it’s impressive that Flynn is able to pack in so much plot and angst. The first-person (unnamed) narrator of the story quickly reveals that she’s not exactly noble in terms of her career choices. Her youth didn’t work out exactly as planned, so she’s taken to a mixture of backroom handjobs and aura readings to pay the bills and possibly get her to a better place. As a child, her mother schooled her in the art of begging for change as a means of more than just survival, so she is perfectly equipped to play people in order to get what she wants.
The narrator’s seedy life takes a seemingly innocuous turn when a worn-down woman named Susan, intelligent but desperate, comes to her for help over the disintegration of her home life. Susan seems to believe turning to the psychic realm is silly at first, but later comes back when she can’t deal with her strange and angry stepson or the cavernous Victorian home she and her family have recently begun to occupy.
Knowing that Susan has money and seeing an opportunity to gain wealthy clients by aiding Susan, the narrator offers a $2,000 home visit service to try and rid the unwieldy mansion of its negativity. Flynn is going for something of a horror element here, so of course things don’t turn out as planned for all of the characters involved. The fates of both women, Susan’s stepson, and Susan’s younger son all hang in the balance at different points in the story as threats seem to arrive from all angles.
One of my favorite parts of “The Grownup” is also a weakness. Flynn’s plotting is very dense here, as a lot happens in a very short amount of time. Some of the twists and turns are fairly easy to spot, while (for me at least) others come as a bit of a surprise. The twists themselves aren’t the problem–a great deal of the decisions made put characters’ perception into question and bring forth a thirst for more answers. It’s just a lot to deal with when the back half of a 60-page story is gyrating all over the place between potential outcomes. This story could have absolutely benefited from being an actual novella in length rather than just claiming to be.
The short length of “The Grownup” means there is really only time to flesh out one character much at all, and that character is the supremely interesting narrator. I’ve read articles claiming that Flynn paints a poor portrait of women in her work, but I tend to agree with her in that she is simply writing difficult, damaged, and flawed individuals that happen to be women. The narrator in “The Grownup” is no different, as she comes with plenty of baggage and displays an eye-rolling cynicism much of the time. What’s more interesting, though, is that she also has genuine moments of empathy and human understanding that she wants to explore more in-depth. The narrator is a complex figure that, while more fully realized than everyone else in play, just doesn’t have time to blossom.
The end result is a really fun short story that I’m glad I took a spare hour to read. While its length is a hindrance in terms of character development and the necessary rushing of multiple plot points, maybe the challenge of specifically making “The Grownup” shorter to be featured as part of an anthology is exactly why it’s so exciting when it really gets going.