Playing With the Grown-Ups

A Novel

Sophie Dahl

Doubleday/Nan A. Talese: 272 pp., $24

“She does have children, you know,” Kitty’s magisterial grandfather would tell potential suitors who called looking for Kitty’s beautiful mother, Marina. Kitty grew up in her grandfather’s home in England, Hay House, her very own Never-Never-Land. Marina was “a beauty, a painter, and a weeper.” When Marina’s guru advised her to move to New York, she ripped Kitty away from Hay House and sent her to boarding school in England. Several months later, Marina sent for her daughter. A few months later, they were back in England.

It would be easy to condemn this capricious and self-centered woman, but Dahl, who is the granddaughter of legendary writer Roald Dahl, to her credit leaves it up to us to judge. Marina’s instability is offset by her endearing playfulness. She is a loving, if rather misguided, mother. “When she was on her best form, Marina was Kitty’s most favourite thing. At school they were asked to write a list of their favourite things, and hers was all about her mother. Her mother loved to laugh as much as she loved to cry. She took her on outings to antique-clothes shops, where they tried on tea-stained wedding dresses and tiaras.”

The supporting cast in “Playing With the Grown-Ups” will be utterly charming or annoying, depending on your tolerance for aristocrats who garden a lot and drink too much. (For my taste, there are greater evils in the world.) As Kitty gets older, her mother comes closer to crashing, and Kitty, who grew up being left, has to learn how to separate from her. “Playing With the Grown-ups” has the feel of a memoir that has been fashioned into a novel, which often indicates that the writer has pulled back from some brink, into fiction. This may or may not be true, but Kitty’s is the kind of childhood that can go one of two ways: amusing story told over and over for one’s entire life or exhausting legacy that must be stared down and shaken off.

In the Shadow of

the Magic Mountain

The Erika and Klaus Mann Story

Andrea Weiss

University of Chicago Press: 310 pp., $27.50

Andrew Weiss makes no secret of her opinion of Thomas Mann, a writer who exemplified, in her telling, the evil genius. As the father of six, Mann was indifferent at best and cruel at worst. His oldest son, Klaus, depressed, oversensitive and addicted to heroin, killed himself in 1949 at 42. Mann’s daughter Erika was scarred too but survived by dint of sheer liveliness and willful energy. “They were a striking, complementary pair: Erika, tall and imposing with her dark, unruly hair, defiant expression, and scraped knees; Klaus, androgynously beautiful with his shoulder-length blond curls, faraway eyes, and gentle manner.”

Klaus and Erika survived both Hitler’s Third Reich and their father by banding together. For a while, the siblings -- talented painters, performance artists and writers -- led successful lives in exile, both of them defiantly gay and openly anti-fascist. Their circle of friends included André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, whom Erika married in 1935. But when the marriage ended, she abandoned her brother and devoted herself to her father. The photographs in this remarkable book are vivid and beautiful evidence of Klaus and Erika’s dependence on each other and of their commitment to freedom and the arts in spite of the shadow cast on them by their father’s legacy.

susan.reynolds@latimes.comSusan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.