Reviewed October 30, 2010.
Delacorte Press, New York, 2010. 336 pages.
2010 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Other Teen Fiction
Ever since he was small, Alton's parents have drilled it into him that his great-uncle Lester is his favorite uncle. Uncle Lester is rich, very rich, and Alton's parents want to be remembered should anything ever happen to him, God forbid. He's only actually met Uncle Lester one time, when Alton was six, at his uncle's sixty-fifth birthday party. When Alton's a junior in high school, his uncle takes a turn for the worse, and his parents start thinking what they could do with his money.
One person they're worried about is Sophie Castaneda.
I'd heard about the Castaneda family all my life, "the crazy Castanedas," but I never quite got my uncle's relationship to them. It was complicated, to say the least.
From what I understood, Sophie Castaneda was the daughter of Uncle Lester's ex-wife's crazy sister.
When Uncle Lester was in his twenties, he had been married for less than a year. His wife had a sister who went insane. The sister had a daughter named Sophie King, who later changed her name to Sophie Finnick, and then became Sophie Castaneda when she got married.
See what I mean?
According to my mother, all the Castanedas were bonkers. I met Toni Castaneda, Sophie's daughter, at my uncle's sixty-fifth birthday. Toni was about six years old, and I remember I was glad to find someone my own age to play with. Toni ran up to me. She covered her ears with her hands, her elbows sticking out, and shouted, 'Shut up! Leave me alone!' and then she ran away.
She didn't do that just to me. I watched her tell other people to shut up and leave her alone too. I thought she was funny, but when I tried playing that game, I got in trouble for saying shut up.
On one of Uncle Lester's turns for the worse, he goes blind. Alton's Dad figures he'll have to stop playing cards, but then his mom hears that Uncle Lester is playing cards four days a week with Toni Castaneda. They aren't sure how he can do that when he's blind. Then they get some insight into it:
It was the second-to-last day of school. I didn't have any summer plans, just a vague notion about getting a job. I had just driven Leslie to her friend Marissa's house, and when I got home I heard my mother say, "Alton would love to spend time with his favorite uncle!"
Uncle Lester wants Alton to drive him to his bridge club and be his cardturner. He will tell Alton what card to play, and Alton will play it. Toni had the job before, but then, before playing a card, she asked, "Are you sure?" thus revealing to the other players that Uncle Lester had more cards he could play. He fired Toni and wants someone who knows nothing about bridge. Alton qualifies.
It turns out that Uncle Lester -- Trapp is what everyone calls him at his bridge club -- is a fantastic bridge player. Alton tells him the cards in his hand at the beginning of each game, and Trapp has no trouble remembering them all and all the cards played during the game. Other people ask him for advice after the day's play, and he can still remember the cards that were dealt.
You might think a book about playing bridge would be boring, but this is anything but. When the plot requires some detail about the game, the author inserts a whale symbol (because of all the whaling details in Moby Dick) and then a summary box, so if you choose you can skip the details and cut to the summary.
Yes, this is a book about playing bridge -- Trapp would like one more shot at the national championship -- but it's also about Alton learning about his uncle and his uncle's surprising life. And then there's Toni Castaneda, who is Trapp's protege as a bridge player. She doesn't seem crazy to Alton. Too bad his best friend seems interested in her.
I especially enjoyed the last third of the book. I can't give away what happens, but it's perfect, and what follows brings everything together.
I grew up playing Rook, which is like a very simple form of bridge, so I could follow the play pretty well. The book did make me want to learn bridge! Like other Louis Sachar books, this book strongly appealed to the mathematical side of my brain. You can think of the bridge play as a series of puzzles, which were fun to read about. It was all in the context of a very human story, adding up to a great book.