The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

I read this story as What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn in Rogues, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. It was later republished as The Grownup.

This is full of spoilers for this short story. If you haven’t read it yet, then don’t read this article. Unless you like spoilers. And speaking of spoilers…

My partner absolutely hates spoilers. He won’t even watch the preview for next week’s episode of the increasingly small number of TV shows we watch in real time. He doesn’t want to know anything at all. The smallest detail could give something away.

Yes, I told him about the study that says spoilers help you enjoy narratives more. He disagreed.

I can understand where he’s coming from. When I read The Grownup as What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn, it was as part of Rogues, an anthology full of stories about “rogues, cads, scalawags, con men, thieves and scoundrels of all descriptions,” as George R. R. Martin himself put it. Knowing this overarching theme does colour the way I read the stories.

And that added an extra layer of enjoyment to The Grownup.

I adore Gillian Flynn as it is, and this story did not disappoint. From the killer (and NSFW) first lines (“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.”) to the ending that gave me the same uneasy feeling as the final pages of Gone Girl, this story was excellent. Flynn’s writing is great, as always. The setting was original, the characters fully realized from their first appearance. There were even a few wonderfully gross moments that made me squirm.

But what I enjoyed most about “The Grownup” is the fact that it kept me guessing until the final page.

On page one, I immediately assumed that the rogue in this story would be our nameless protagonist. From her secret true profession to her unusual upbringing, she’s constantly using covers and people’s own assumptions to her advantage. There’s nothing malicious about what she does — for me, she’s the most likeable Flynn protagonist so far. But she’s not honest about what she does, even if she does it with the best of intentions. So for more she fell squarely in the rogue category.

There’s really only one time when I felt like the protagonist was being honest with me: when she does business with her favourite client. Afterwards, the two discuss books — particularly classic novels of the supernatural. I wasn’t entirely sure whether she genuinely enjoys reading them, or just wants to convince herself that she enjoys reading them because she sees it as an essential part of the woman she wants to be. But if she’s lying about that, then she’s at least lying to herself, too.

That’s a great way to set up the character, but it also sets the scene for the rest of the story, which is ruled by gothic tropes. Sinister children, haunted houses, revenge and murder. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems.

Our protagonist seems fully in control of the narrative when she runs into Susan Burke, who she immediately as a desperate suburban mum looking for an easy supernatural fix to the very real problems in her life — and specifically, in her appropriately (and familiarly) spooky Victorian house.

Our protagonist leaps on the chance to establish herself as the go-to spiritual aide for wealthy but unhappy women in the city. She starts imagining her future as an entrepreneur — and it’s when she starts focusing on the story she wants to see that she loses track of the story she inadvertently lets herself get caught up in.

And that’s exactly where our heroine loses her way. She gets so caught up in the obvious path forward that she doesn’t stop to consider that the supporting characters in her success story might be more than one-note cardboard cutouts.

Is Susan Burke a lonely housewife desperate for help with her empty home and troubled teenage son, or cold-blooded and an excellent actor? Is Miles a disturbed teenager possessed by a malicious spirit, or simply disturbed — or even misunderstood?

In a short story packed with so many plot twists, the final pages had me constantly reassessing who the rogue was, and marvelling at how short-sighted I’d been and at the bizarre ride I’d been taken on — not entirely unlike our unnamed protagonist.

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