September 26, 2011

Young word nerds unite!

By Meg Wolitzer
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Meg Wolitzer has written a string of smart, critically acclaimed novels for adults in the last decade. In her newest book, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, the main characters are middle schoolers (not moms). The action of the plot surrounds a national Scrabble tournament—and it’s a hilarious, heartwarming story of suspense, friendship and family dynamics.

Life could be better for Duncan Dorfman. He and his single mother have moved to Drilling Falls, Pennsylvania, where they live with Duncan’s great-aunt Djuna in a “squirrel-colored” house that smells like yams and beans. At Drilling Falls Middle School, Duncan’s classmates call him “Lunch Meat,” and his only friend is video game-obsessed Andrew Tanizaki. In a desperate moment, Duncan reveals that he has recently discovered an unusual talent: He can read with his fingers. This greatly interests Carl Slater, a competitive Scrabble player (and jerk) who aspires to go all the way at the national Youth Scrabble Tournament and take home the $10,000 prize. Carl recruits Duncan to be his partner, knowing that he can draw only the best tiles. What Carl doesn’t anticipate is that Duncan will fall in love with Scrabble—and find that cheating takes all the fun out of the game.

At the tournament in Yakamee, Florida, Duncan meets April Blunt and Nate Saviano, two players who have their own sets of problems. April is the lone word nerd in a family of jocks, and Nate’s dad was a runner-up at the Youth Scrabble Tournament years ago, and has forced his son to live out his dream. In between nail-biting Scrabble games, excursions to the creepy amusement park Funswamp and skateboarding mishaps, the group of players forms a tight-knit group. They realize how lucky they are to meet other kids obsessed with words. “When the weekend was over, they would return to the real world, where no one knew what bingo-bango-bongs were, and where vowel dumps sounded like something embarrassing that could happen to you on the toilet.”

Equally appealing for boys and girls, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman captures the experience of not fitting in at school—and the pure joy of finally finding your niche. Without being preachy, Wolitzer fits in a lesson on ethics, as readers will consider whether it would be fair for Duncan to use his secret talent, even if he’d never get caught. Young Scrabble fans will delight in learning new tips, and readers who have not yet discovered the game will appreciate its puzzle-like aspect—and maybe be convinced that word games are cool and give Scrabble a try.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Wolitzer for The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

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