Friday, September 30, 2011

Review of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

 Wolitzer, Meg.  The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.  Dutton, 2011.

Three pairs of kids are competing in the Youth Scrabble Tournament:

April, paired with her best friend Lucy, is the lone Scrabble fanatic in a big family of jocks.  She wants to win the tournament, but she is also hoping against hope to see a boy she taught to play scrabble while staying at a motel three years ago.

Nate, paired with his friend Maxie, is a NYC skateboarder who would like to attend school but must stay home and study Scrabble all day thanks to his crazed dad, who lost the YST as a kid and is determined that Nate redeem his shattered pride.

And Duncan Dorfman is a kid with an inexplicable talent - he can "read" anything with the fingertips of his left hand.  You can see the applications to Scrabble (think about reaching into that bag full of tiles), if you don't mind cheating - and Carl, Duncan's amoral scrabble-mad classmate, doesn't mind cheating and very much wants to win the YST.  So he bullies Duncan into becoming his YST partner.

The kids play Scrabble.  They win some and they lose some.  They talk endlessly about bingo-bango-bongos and 2-letter words and anagrams.  Duncan worries about the secrets he is keeping and the lies he has told in order to take part in YST - because as it turns out, he learns to love Scrabble, enough to want to avoid using his magic fingertips.

There are some not very successful subplots - April's search for that motel boy; a very weird attempt at cheating by Nate's dad and his old YST partner; and the secret that Duncan's mom has been keeping all his life.  None of these is particularly interesting or convincing.

The fantasy element - Duncan's fingertips - feels utterly beside the point.  It serves merely as the reason Carl ropes him into the YST, plus as a source of tension for Duncan as he agonizes about whether or not to cheat.  It could have been left out entirely, especially since we never discover why or how he has this gift.

I did like all the Scrabble talk.  And the narrative style is easy-going with just a bit of quirk to keep things interesting (except when it goes overboard as in the Funswamp episode).  All in all, a perfectly pleasant but underwhelming book (won't call it a fantasy, because it hardly is) for grades 4 to 6.

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