Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of a cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and an adult the world still remembers as a little girl. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being cute enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative obscurity, but also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.
Hands up who else wanted to be Matilda when they were a child? Sure, growing up with terrible parents would not be fun, but the end result of having telepathic powers (albeit briefly), and getting to live with the delightful Miss Honey seemed rather appealing as a child. The film of Matilda came out when I was 8, and it’s safe to say had a very big impact on the shy, bookish child I once was. So I was rather excited to read Mara Wilson’s first book, given that she was the actress who portrayed Matilda in the film, and also starred in Mrs Doubtfire – another film which I watched on an almost daily basis as a child. I’d heard bits and pieces about Mara in recent years – her twittering and writing shining a spotlight on her once again, so I was very keen to take a look at her essays.
Firstly, these are not essays in a dry, academic sense – but they aren’t mere autobiographical musings – through tales of her life, Mara touches on issues like child bereavement, mental illness and the perils of adult dating in an accessible and relatable way. All of the stories here have a strong sense of humour to them, and Mara is a skilled enough writer to easily make an empathic connection with the reader, the shortness of the chapters meaning that one is never stuck in a period for too long, but moves swiftly between different periods in the writer’s life. Some sections are not a particularly easy read either – reading about a child being bereaved is hard, and learning about how Mara struggled to deal with her OCD as a teenager can be tough at times, but the wit and warmth of the writing ensures that it is never a chore.
Those wanting nuggets and glimpses about Mara’s film career will find them too – (the tribute to Robin Williams is particularly touching), but, for me, the most fascinating part was the look at how the outside world judges a child star – constantly preventing them from truly growing up, and infantilising them at an unhealthily late age. Heck, I can’t deny that even I felt briefly uncomfortable learning about the author going on dates or having sex – when I started this book the Mara Wilson in my minds eye was a young girl, but, by the time I put the book down, I could see her as a clever, warm and witty woman.
In truth, I’d recommend these be read by everyone – they’re funny, moving and enlightening, and whilst it helps to have known of Mara from her performances as a child, it’s not essential – Mara’s writing is good enough to appeal to all, although I can’t deny that I felt a particular connection to it. Speaking as someone who used to be a bookish, shy kid suffering with social anxiety, finding out that an actress who I adored as a child went through similar problems was welcome and refreshing. In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, he said that … Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone
And that, in her brilliant book, is exactly the message that Mara Wilson has sent out too.