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Meg Wolitzer
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Dutton / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-525-42304-1
Publication Date: 09-20-2011
298 Pages; $16.99
Date Reviewed: 09-27-2011

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy

Divvying up books by the intended age of readers seems sillier than ever. After all, a good book is a good book, regardless of content. Meg Wolitzer is an author known for her entertaining and rather raw examinations of American life. She's unsparing and engaging in the same moment. For readers who enjoyed her novel 'The Uncoupling,' in which a spell cast over a suburban community results in a sex-strike by the women, her new novel about (and certainly readable by) pre-teens, 'The Fingertips Of Duncan Dorfman,' is an oddly appropriate companion. As in 'The Uncoupling,' Wolitzer uses a light touch of the fantastic to shed light on the inner and outer lives of those trapped in less-than-fortuitous circumstances by the economic and sociological vicissitudes of the current version of "interesting times." In a couple of short paragraphs, readers will find themselves immersed in a story set in the world of competitive Scrabble.

For most readers, the fact that there is a world of competitive Scrabble, with tournaments and $10,000 prizes might seem more fantastic than Duncan Dorfman's "superpower." Duncan, we learn, can read letters, words and images simply by touching them. Of course, this doesn't do him a lot of good, at first. He lives with his single mother, who has just lost her job and been forced to move back to Drilling Falls, Pennsylvania, with her "box-shaped" great aunt Djuna. Duncan's the kind of kid who's immediately targeted by the school bully, until said bully learns of his "power." Then his world and those of two other well-crafted characters, April and Nate are set on a collision course in a Scrabble tourney.

The pleasures of Wolitzer's novel for readers of any age are quite apparent from the get-go. She writes utterly believable, utterly likable characters who are down on their luck but never sad sacks or symbol-bearing ciphers for some unconscionable social-message agenda. Duncan, his mother (Caroline), and the other pre-teen Scrabble players, April, Nate and their families are the sort of people whom you would hope to meet at an Open House night at your local middle-school. They're interesting and real. Even though the novel is totally about (and thus appropriate for) the pre-teen set, the people we meet here are detailed enough and interesting enough to engage and sustain any reader's attention.

Wolitzer's plot hinges on two fantastic notions; the first, Duncan's power; the second, competitive Scrabble. Duncan's power is a well-handled and carefully worked-out sort of psychic ability. Call him the Carrie of Scrabble. But his ability as it concerns the tournament offers him in a well-devised moral dilemma. Imagine the problems confronting Clark Kent if he tried out for high-school wrestling and you get the idea. The unhappy economic circumstances of America in the early 21st century also add to the mix, since Duncan and his mom could really use the money from the Scrabble world.

The word play and Scrabbliana add a nice layer of word-geek texture to the proceedings. Wolitzer knows how to play on the reader's curiosity about just how deep this game can go, and has lots of funs with anagrams, puzzles and language that actually ties in to the plotline of the book. Here's a book about language where the plot actually derives from the language and word puzzles. They're satisfying fun.

And this leads to perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel, and one readers are least likely to notice, given all the other good stuff going on. Wolitzer's prose is superb, and very entertaining, without calling attention to itself. In fact, it's only after you finish reading the book that you will flash on just how effectively written 'The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman' is. Her descriptions and sentences prove to be Wolitzer's understated superpower. Forget your age. Good writing is hard to find and worth seeking, even if it is spelled out in tiles.

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