Found via: Publisher's Weekly 4/5
Only Louis Sachar could write a YA novel about bridge and come away with a fun, compelling novel. (Seriously, bridge?! Do you even know anyone who plays it? I sure don't)
Alton Richards just wants a quiet summer. After being dumped by his girl friend for his best friend, all he wants to do is stay at home, mope, and maybe pick up a part-time job. All that is thrown out the window, however, when his reclusive Uncle Lester calls, demanding to know if Alton knows how to play bridge. Alton doesn't have a clue, and so Lester, recently blinded, calls on Alton to serve as his cardturner at several bridge games a week. Alton's family is down on their luck and hoping for a generous inheritance once dear Uncle Lester finally kicks the bucket, and his mom insists that Alton take the job to make a good impression (and preferably not take any money for it, but Alton puts his foot down at that).
And so begins Alton's indoctrination into the world of bridge, putting up with his uncle's barbs and insults while quietly absorbing a working knowledge of the game, and planning on how to get Lester back into the national rankings of bridge players. Along for the ride is Gloria, Lester's bridge partner, and Toni, the very cute and possibly crazy girl who was Lester's cardturner until she insulted him by questioning a play in the middle of a game. Along the way, family secrets are investigated and revealed, romance blossoms, and Alton finds he just might have inherited his uncle's knack for cards.
Going into this book, I knew next to nothing about bridge - poker is my card game of choice. Sachar does his best to educate readers about the game, giving both long explanations and short recaps for readers depending on their interest in the mechanics of the game. I read through all of the long explanations (highlighted by an image of a white whale as an homage to Moby Dick and those ridiculous chapters about whale anatomy that appear uninvited throughout the book) and I still don't think I really get the game, but can definitely see its appeal. Hands are almost like communal logic puzzles, where you have to work with a partner to figure out the best answer while the other pair is working against you. Maybe I'll take up the game when I retire; it's gotta be better than bingo.
In the meantime, I'll stick with poker.
The quirky family dynamics that are a staple of Sachar's work are fully at play here. Alton's parents come across as slightly morbid as they are pretty obviously hoping that Uncle Lester will die and, thanks to Alton's help, will remember the family kindly in his will. Creepy. Alton's a good guy who refuses to play their game, and finds he ends up legitimately enjoys spending time with his uncle, even if the cranky old man thinks he's an idiot who doesn't know the first thing about cards.
The last act takes a slight turn for the weird, but so long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief for awhile, it's all fun.
The quirky characters and relationships are really what make this novel shine. Yes, bridge is a weird and random game, but for most of the story it fades into the background, and even at the climactic bridge tournament, the game is less important than the relationships it highlights.