Alton Richards is having one of those ennui-filled summers where he can barely get himself out of bed. The fact that his girlfriend started dating his best friend may have something to do with this as well. His mother forces him to become his blind great-uncle Lester's driver and cardturner for his bridge tournaments. A cardturner reveals a player's hand (to the player), and subsequently bids and plays the hand as instructed. Mom is hoping that this relationship with Alton's "favorite uncle" will pay off once the wealthy old man dies. Uncle Lester is a crabby old man -- blind from diabetes -- with little tolerance for Alton's ignorance, but -- in spite of himself -- Alton grows interested in the game and how it is played. He also meets Lester's former cardturner, his grand niece from the other side of his family, who was fired for asking Lester "are you sure?" (you want to play that card) during one game.
Sachar writes about hands and games and tournaments in excruciating detail, but he also provides a handy abridged version that follows the lengthy explanation. In the book, these technical discussions are preceded by an image of a whale, so the reader can know she can skip this part. This is an homage to Moby Dick, a book Alton was assigned to read but failed because he got bogged down in its too many details about whaling. (Could that be the book under which Alton is sleeping on the cover?) In the audiobook, the whale image is replaced with a two-note foghorn, which made me smile every time I heard it. (Of course, there was really no way for me to skip these ... since I couldn't know how many minutes to fast forward. So, I admit, I occasionally tuned out the details.)
Alton is sarcastic and funny, and kind of bewildered by his growing interest in the game. He observes his grasping family with a suitably jaundiced eye, and the (mostly) elderly players with a polite incredulity at their obsession. He falls for Toni, the former cardturner, and he's suitably goofy and insecure about this. As for the bridge, I enjoyed the peek inside the game -- both the method of play and each rubber's outcome. The plot takes a bit of a mystical turn near the end, which strained my appreciation a bit, but mostly I liked it.
The author reads his book. He's all wrong. He's way too old and weary in voice for Alton (the narrator), but perfect for Lester and his bridge-playing companions. Yet, his narration works for me. Yes, his voice sounds too mature (and tired), but Alton's a little world-weary and battered (for 17) himself, and both he and his creator share a sense of humor and cynicism that comes right out in Sachar's narration. I was engaged and entertained by the story, and loved its characters and its humor.
The novel concludes with an afterword by Syd Fox (whoever he may be ... oh wait, joke! Syd Fox is a fictional bridge expert [which I learned here] ... ha, very ha!) that thoroughly analyzes some of the hands described and played in the novel. This was a real yawner (although now I'm mildly amused to learn he's a fake), even though the audiobook promised a PDF of the hands ... should you care to place the disc into a computer to look at them. I downloaded this book, which possibly means that my computer (at one point) held a copy of that PDF, but I don't think so. I think the publisher could have skipped the whole thing.
As for the appeal of bridge for young readers, who knows? More than half of our copies are currently checked out. I hope they are enjoying it as much as I do. Frank Cottrell Boyce reviewed it here last summer for the Brits, and I just love what he says about Sachar: "The book feels like one long, deadpan dare, as though Sachar has made a bet with himself that he can make the most boring setting thrilling." Go ahead, call the author's bluff!
The Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a Joker by Louis Sachar
Narrated by the author
Listening Library, 2010. 7:27