Thursday, January 5, 2012

January Book Pick -- The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, by Meg Wolitzer

 Duncan Dorfman, age twelve, has a superpower: He can read with the fingertips of his left hand. But not much else in his life is going right. His mom has lost her job, so they've moved back to her home town of Drilling Falls, PA. Fortunately, Great-aunt Djuna took them in and got Mom a job at Thriftee Mike's Warehouse. Unfortunately for Duncan, Aunt Djuna is a vegan cook and her house smells permanently of yams. Mom begs him to keep his power secret, because "If you don't, I'm afraid something bad will happen." He's always felt protective of his mom, who lost Duncan's father before his birth and is plagued by migraines. So he really means to keep the secret, except he sort of tells/shows the one boy in school who doesn't pick on him. Since he does so in the lunchroom, he is overheard by Carl, the class mean boy, who is also the class rich boy, who is also a national Scrabble tournament competitor. Instantly realizing what a help Duncan can be in drawing Scrabble tiles, Carl dumps his prior Scrabble partner and tells Duncan he wants him to be his partner at the tournament in FL in December. Duncan, lured by the idea of prize money for his mom and decent social status for himself, agrees.

But on the opposite coast, in Portland, Oregon, April Blunt and her friend Lucy are planning to win the Youth Scrabble Tournament. April is the only non-athlete in a family of jocks, and she wants more than anything to prove to them that Scrabble is a sport. Besides that, several years ago she met a boy she can't forget. She taught him enough Scrabble to play one game, and was fascinated by the way they seemed to connect, yet she had never learned his name or where he lived. Knowing it's probably silly, April still loves to fantasize that the boy kept up with Scrabble and that she might meet him at the tournament.

Nate Saviano lives with his father in a sumptuous New York apartment. It not only has a recording booth; it has an indoor skate park! Nate's mom, her new doctor husband, and their new baby live nearby, and everybody gets along quite well. Unfortunately for Nate, his father cannot get over the fact that, as a twelve-year-old himself, he and his partner came in second at the YST. He's been forever grooming Nate to avenge his loss, even homeschooling him as an excuse to drill him on nothing but Scrabble. All Nate wants is to return to school with his friends and ride his skateboard. He figures the only way to get his dad off his back is to win the tournament. But what he really wants is for his dad to get over his own childhood loss, get his life unstuck, and move on.

When these three meet at the tournament, they become friends. Wolitzer does an outstanding job of using the game of Scrabble to show the characters' lives intersecting and their views of themselves changing. There are plenty of layers, surprises, suspense (we know one, and only one of the three and his or her partner will win), humor, and moral choices here; likable characters; and a well-paced, intriguing plot. The POV is split among the three kids, but we also get snatches of adult POVs plus omniscient narration. This book contains delights much too numerous to mention--evangelical characters who aren't teased, for one--and a good overview of Scrabble in a way that's fully integrated with the story and not at all boring. Definitely recommended!

25 comments:

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for the review, Marcia. I have this book out from the library and now I'm definitely going to get around to reading it!

Vijaya said...

As a Scrabble lover, I'll definitely be reading this. My hold pile at the library is getting huge. Thanks for the great review.

It's always interesting to read a book about a group of people who come together -- intersecting lives, as you put it -- be it in an apartment complex, a church, detention, or a tournament. I have a couple of books like this in me, but don't think I have the skill to pull it off yet, so this will be instructive.

Miranda "Sibo" Paul said...

Your opening lines are so compelling: "He can read with the fingertips of his left hand. But not much else in his life is going right." - That lone makes me want to read it!

Happy New Year!

Barbara Watson said...

I haven't read this (or heard of it) so thank you for your enthusiastic review! I'm adding it to my TBR pile.

cleemckenzie said...

I loved the vegan kitchen that smells permanently of yams. What a hoot! Sounds like a delightful story.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- Hope you enjoy it!

Vijaya -- I never played Scrabble that much till I started playing it on my phone. :)It really helped me enjoy the Scrabble portions of the book more, I think.

Miranda -- I think you'll find the book very "hooky" too. It drew me right in, and I'm not that easy to draw these days! Occupational hazard, I think.

Barbara -- I guess it's getting award buzz. Enjoy!

Lee -- There are too many fun things to mention in this book. Enjoy!

Joanne said...

I really like the idea of integrating Scrabble into the story, and playing with the word concept like that. Sounds like an engaging read for the young set!

Faith E. Hough said...

Wow, great review. I've seen this one here and there and constantly thought of buying it, but your review convinced me. It sounds like a lot of fun! (And a little bit Louis Sachar-ish...have you read The Cardturner?)

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

What a fun idea! Thanks for this fun review, Marcia and I'm excited to find your blog. :)

Jaye Robin Brown said...

A house that smells permanently of yams - eek. Great review, sounds like fun book.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

sounds like a great read. thanks for reviewing this - it's new to me.

Ruth Donnelly said...

"Wolitzer does an outstanding job of using the game of Scrabble to show the characters' lives intersecting and their views of themselves changing."

-- Well said! Great review, Marcia!

Laura Pauling said...

I'll check it out. I always enjoy the books you recommend!

Laura Pauling said...

I'll check it out. I always enjoy the books you recommend!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

It sounds like a wonderful book...Thanks for the review, Marcia!

Happy New Year!

akoss said...

I've been on a forever path of learning a better way to handle different POVs in the same story. It seems this book is perfect for me.
Thank you for a great review I shall try to get a copy of my own.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wonderful review. I'm going to have to add this one to my TBR pile, especially since I love playing Scrabble. Thanks, Marcia.

Marcia said...

Joanne -- I love that it's an idea some people might be dubious about, but I think it works fine. I love thinking that significant numbers of kids would love and be good at Scrabble at that age. To be seriously good at Scrabble, you have to know so many weird words!

Faith -- Yes! I read and loved The Cardturner, too. I don't know anything about bridge, but I really felt I knew the basics after reading the book, and I loved the whale symbols that preceded the "skippable" parts.

Amy -- Welcome, and thanks!

Jaye -- Kind of reminds me of smelling my piano teacher's dinner every time I arrived for a lesson. She didn't make yams, though.

Terry -- The more we read, the behinder we get, right? :)

Ruth -- Thanks! I really enjoyed the parallels between your review and mine.

Laura -- I'd love to know if you enjoy this one, too.

Sharon -- It's very well done. I'm glad it's getting some award buzz. Happy New Year!

akoss -- Yes, this book would be good for studying multiple POV. Glad you came!

Cynthia -- Sounds like a great book for you!

Mary Witzl said...

I want to get hold of this book so badly my palms are sweating. The sheer quirkiness of it would be enough to intrigue me, but the totally different characters, the fact that they're all involved in SCRABBLE, of all things -- all of those details and the complexity of the plot and involvement of adult protagonists -- this really sounds great. And evangelical characters who aren't poked fun at? Good for her. I'll definitely read this one -- and keep an eye out for Meg Wolitzer's books!

Susan Fields said...

What a creative book! And I like the little details, like the aunt's house smelling of yams and the mom having migraines. Sounds like a good one!

Marcia said...

Mary -- Yes, this is one of those "filled with goodies on every page" books. I believe MW has written for adults as well. Need to check that out!

Susan -- She's a pretty cool aunt and you can almost forgive her the yams. Just a lot of fun all the way around.

Medeia Sharif said...

Thank you for this review. I just added this to my TBR list.

Marcia said...

Medeia -- Hope you enjoy it! :)

Laurie Schneider said...

Such a fun book! Sweet characters, a little magic, some goofy coincidences, and a lot of Scrabble.... The anagrams reminded me of another middle-grade book you might like: Multiple Choice by Janet Tashjian.

Great review!

Nancy Quinn said...

I know I am a little late to your review - but I loved this book and so did my 10 year old daughter. Passed it along to my sister so she could get some tips for Words with Friends!