by Louis Sachar
I was lucky enough to hear Louis Sachar speak at the 2008 Children's Literature Council Fall Gala in California (where a marvelous breakfast was served) and I'll never forgot how he told us of his latest project. "I want," he declared, "to publish a book." He paused dramatically. "For teens." He gave us a sly look. "On how to play bridge!" He then related how his agent had promptly told him, "This will never get published. Teens don't want to read about the card game of bridge. They just don't." Sachar went on to tell us of his near-epic struggle to write the book. How his own personal passion for bridge sometimes clouded his vision. The many re-writes that he went though. His final compromise: a whale symbol for those "bridge-heavy" scenes that, in truth, could be skipped by the reader if necessary. Sachar spoke with such passion and excitement about this project, it was hard not to get swept up in his enthusiasm. For me, seeing The Cardturner finally in print, it felt like there should be an orchestral swell of inspirational music. And in a way, I suppose it is a miracle that it was published at all. So, I was pretty excited to take a look at this impossible book - the little book that could, as it were. I wish I could say that this book was a triumph against all odds, but for me at least, just like that game of bridge I played once, this novel left me out in the cold.
I've only played bridge once in my life, and never really did figure out the rules. We were dealt cards... and after some checking around it was decided that I was "the dummy." The role of the dummy was, as far as I could tell, to put their cards down and not play that round. This happened to me round, after round, after round. I asked if this was because I was new to the game, but everyone assured me it was just a coincidence. Whenever I tried to strike up a conversation with the other players, I was immediately shushed, as they intensely moved cards around in a labyrinthian and mysterious fashion. The game was not only boring, it was incredibly lonely.
Diving into The Cardturner, I found the breaking of the fourth-wall a little distracting at first, especially when Alton introduces himself. He says that his name is unusual and I couldn't help but think of the famous scientist and cook Alton Brown. He's been roped into helping his ailing, wealthy uncle Lester Trapp at his local bridge games. Reluctant at first, he quickly becomes entranced by the game, and grows more and more loyal to his quirky uncle, whom his parents are hoping to milk for his inheritance.
Even with the "whale" symbol during some of the "bridge-intensive" portions, I still found myself zoning out. I'm sorry, but even the portions of the book that weren't "whaled" still had way, way too much bridge. The electronic footnotes in my e-book facilitated easy switching back and forth from the story and in-depth information from the addendum on the game of bridge, but it still wasn't enough to keep me up to speed.
There were some bright moments, however. I liked Alton's description of the bridge group that starts, "You know what? I'm not going to describe anybody else as elderly. Let's just say that if you take my age and double it, I would still have been the youngest person in the room, by a lot."
I was horrified by Alton's freakishly bloodthirsty parents. The father literally rubs his hands, vulture-like, at the thought of rich Uncle Lester's impending death. Alton's mother's greatest fear is that Lester will leave them out of the will, or be hoodwinked by some young, good-looking woman in his final days, leaving his fortune to someone outside the family. This is played for humor, but it still seemed quite selfish and revolting. If this had been handled with a bit more pathos, perhaps I wouldn't have found it so off-putting.
Stripping away the bridge from the narrative (which, believe me, is A LOT), we're left with the story of a very dysfunctional family. Alton and his younger sister Leslie (named after Uncle Lester) are both such sweet kids, you wonder how on earth their status and money obsessed, middle-class straggler parents managed to raise them. Alton's best friend Cliff... well, let's just say with friends like that, who needs enemies? Cliff has recently stolen Alton's girlfriend Katie, and seems to be making moves on Toni. I was confused by Alton's crush on Toni, Trapp's former cardturner. Is she not Alton's distant cousin? The book seems to be ricocheting towards an exciting conclusion, and then fizzles out with another very lengthy explanation of some of the final bridge moves employed.
Can I recommend this book? I just don't know. The characters, especially Alton, are compelling. The mystery of how and why certain family members have become estranged also greatly drew my interest. The bridge portions, unfortunately, were mind-numbingly boring, at best. But, if there is even one teen out there who's been turned on to the obscure card game, then I suppose, for Sachar at least, it will have been well worth it.
I borrowed this book from the library.