Future Self to Vicki: You’re going to read a novel about playing bridge … and you’re going to enjoy it.
Vicki: Not going to happen. My mother tried, on several occasions, to raise some enthusiasm for bridge in my body and soul. I love to play cards, board games, guessing games, trivia games … not bridge. There are so many things to remember and secret languages to memorize and endless post-mortem discussions and ferocious arguments over cards that could have been better played.
Future Self to Vicki: Just you wait. Louis Sachar is going to write a book called The Cardturner and you’re going to love it.
When a smart bookseller placed this book in my hands, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. “You’re going to love this,” she said. “You’ll be surprised how interesting bridge can be.”
It turns out Louis Sachar loves bridge. I don’t know how he could have written this novel if he didn’t. There’s lots of information about bridge in here, including diagrams of East, and West, and North, and the Dummy hand. There’s even a drawing of a whale which, he tells us at the beginning of Chapter 12, represents the whale in Moby Dick. The main character, Alton Richards, writes: “It seems like a pretty good adventure story about a monster killer whale, but just when I started to get into it, the author, Herman Melville, stopped the story and went on page after page describing every tiny detail of a whaling ship. I zoned out. I never finished the book and had to bluff my way through the test.”
Now, I have my own history with Moby Dick (of a somewhat similar nature), so this caught my attention. Wherever the whale appears in The Cardturner, there’s a detailed explanation of what’s happening in the bridge game. Recognizing that not everyone will want to read the details, the author provides a short summary of the details in a box at the end … and continues on with the story. I like this. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I like the book so much. Gratitude. The reader can choose to read these discussions (and Sachar does a good job of writing them in an interesting way) or get on with the story.
And the story is fascinating, complete with enough characters and suspense to keep the reader turning the pages. Will high school student Alton Richards survive a summer with no job, no girlfriend (she dumped him for his best friend), and a mother who is obsessed with inheriting money from their rich uncle? It just so happens this rich uncle is blind and he’s a master bridge player. Uncle Lester Trapp has figured out a way that he can continue to compete in bridge tournaments. He needs a cardturner, someone who won’t be interested in the game, someone who will follow directions without question. He needs Alton Richards.
So many things about this book are subtle, entwining the reader in the fantastical world of bridge competition, that it’s easy to overlook the masterful characterizations, the humor, the bizarre cast, and the underlying humanity of the tale while you’re trying to turn the pages more quickly to find out what happens next. All of this, including the Extra Character, the strategies of bridge, weave a spell over the reader until you’re certain you could sit down at a table and play as well as Trapp and Gloria.
Future Self to Vicki: You’re still not going to become a master bridge player.
Vicki: Probably not, but thanks to Louis Sachar, I have a better understanding of why people would devote their lives to the pursuit of bridge. More importantly, I’ve added Alton Richards and Lester Trapp to that pantheon of characters I’d invite over for dinner and conversation … and maybe a game of bridge.