The Cardturner: A Novel about a King, a Queen, and a Joker by Louis Sachar
My rating: ★★★
What I knew about bridge prior to reading this book: it involves cards.
What I learned about bridge after reading this book: it involves cards, and Louis Sachar possesses a fierce, enthusiastic love for it.
The Cardturner discusses bridge, a game my brain fails to understand. I do not do well in comprehending sports, and I say “sports,” because bridge — as Alton (the main character) describes (and as capable I am of understanding) — is a mental sport. Bridge is a mindspin of how cards are played, and I’m left in awe with my jaw slightly agape. I am fascinated because it’s one of those things I find intriguing only because I don’t understand it. (Although I don’t particularly care to understand, either.)
See, I forgot the rules of baseball the moment I quit softball, tennis is still a mystery, and as far as I can tell: American football simply concerns men running around in tight uniforms. What I clearly discern about these games is that they are physically exhausting. Bridge, on the other hand, seems mentally stimulating but also wearing. You mean you want me to exert mental energy on understanding a card game? I do that often enough studying for exams. Don’t anyone dare make me learn bridge, please.
I knew very well that bridge is involved, so I can’t blame the author. However, Sachar manages to make the bridge aspect work (surprise!), even if the reader doesn’t fully understand. Read:
The declarer led the ♣9, and nobody else had any clubs left. Trapp discarded a diamond, and the dummy got rid of the ♠7. Annabel still had to play.
“If you were Annabel, what would you discard?” Toni asked me.
I looked at the diagram. “Do you know if the declarer had any diamonds left?” I asked
“He only had spades,” said Toni.
[…] Annabel should discard the ♦7. She needed to save the ♠5 in order to protect her ♠K. Otherwise, on the next trick, the declarer could tell dummy to play the ace, and Annabel would have to play her king.
Anyone who is not a bridge player: do you understand that? Because I don’t. Thankfully, in case readers don’t want to read, re-read, and re-re-read in diligence to understand what made their brain zone out, Sachar presents the Moby Dick whale. The whale cues the reader that a bridge blurb is nigh, but don’t fret. The whale also indicates that the section is followed by a simplified recap, and truly: these recaps help. (If only I could remember what a trick is.)
Despite that a large portion of text (think: nearly every chapter, if not all entirely) mentions bridge lingo, this book still works for non-bridge players. It works because The Cardturner is not about bridge. Bridge is often discussed, certainly — bridge covers, I estimate, 95% or more of page space. The heart of Sachar’s novel, though, more closely rests near its characters, their relationships to one another, and what the mind perceives.
First, there resides Trapp, a.k.a. “Your favorite and ill but wealthy Uncle Lester (so, Alton, please suck up and get our family name penned into his will)” by Alton’s parents. Trapp is blind, old, and a phenomenal bridge player. Here to serve as readers’ gateway into bridge, Alton learns about the game as he steadily learns about Trapp. I watched Alton develop a fondness for the game, and, what would you know, Trapp along with it. Although Alton may not realize it at first, he desperately wants Trapp to acknowledge, teach, and open up to him. Where there was previously no link between the two characters — familial relation aside — one grows.
I find this touching yet grounded in maintaining accurate depictions. The characters and the interactions hold down a solid believability. Does Trapp open up and accept Alton? No, of course not. Trapp is aloof and remains aloof. He enjoys the idea of Alton not knowing a thing about bridge, because that means Alton won’t question, “Are you sure?” Trapp thinks Alton believes they’re playing Go, fish! The old man is stripped of sight, but oblivion blinds him to his nephew’s interest. It’s Alton’s job to understand his uncle’s distance, which has a tender backstory to tell.
Sachar’s novel, I must note, is not only about Alton, Trapp, and bridge. Off in the corner shines a soft light intended to make Alton’s nearly non-existent love life a feature. When I compare it to the rest of the book’s happenings, however, it pales. Toni is likeable inside her love-interest role, but she’s also likeable outside of it. What I enjoy about her and Alton’s relationship is that it exceeds fluff, for there is none. Toni serves good purpose to the book’s plot, nor is a boy/girlfriend relationship forced. Instead, we roll with the sparks and little heart twinges and see where it all leads.
Lastly, I will say, The Cardturner is written in first-person via Alton’s perspective. It is this type of narration that sometimes worries me, because I find it too limiting for my own vantage point. Put simply, I hate learning right alongside the main character. At the same time, I don’t see how Sachar’s narration could have been written any other way, because (and this is helpful for people like me) readers learn as Alton learns. What does bother me is the direct manner in which Alton acknowledges the audience, also referring to the chapters as “chapters.” This confuses me, as I can’t discern what this book means to Alton. This continues to be an aspect I dislike, however small. It kicks me out of Alton’s story and says, “Look where you are! You’re not here watching Alton turn cards for Trapp. You’re cozying up to the heater in a room that can use some brighter lighting. By the way, don’t you have work to do?” I don’t like it when characters slap me back into reality. It’s rude. Aside from this one gripe, The Cardturner is an otherwise pleasantly (and surprisingly) enjoyable read.
If I knew a little more about bridge and wished to learn, this would be a four-star rating. It’s just too bad I didn’t (couldn’t?) pay close enough attention to share those Aha! moments with Alton. Regardless, anyone who is more familiar with this game will, and any reader — no matter the limited extent of his or her bridge knowledge — may enjoy the overall reading experience like I did.