Book Review: The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman Wins No Tournament

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Click for links to order, excerpts, and the official summary.

First, I should say that my relationship with Scrabble is like Nate’s with the game—or really April’s in reverse, and so I was probably never fated to like this book however well it was written.

I wish that I could say that I agreed with Sharon Creech (author of Walk Two Moons), who praises the “polished prose” of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

Perhaps this novel is outside of bestselling author Meg Wolitzer’s usual style. Or perhaps I really should find my middle grade plot quickly. Hopefully The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman underwent fierce editing before being published.

The novel follows a number of young Scrabble players (Duncan Dorfman being only one) as they prepare for and compete in the annual national Youth Scrabble Tournament.

The characters are a collection of—well, every character that a sports story, from The Mighty Ducks to Yu-gi-oh needs, as one friend to whom I was complaining commented. There’s poor, new in town Duncan, who wants the prize money and popularity; and his partner, Carl, the bully. There’s Nate, pushed into the sport by his father, who seeks to use his son to reclaim his missed chance at glory; and his friend, soon to be love interest, a rather flat character whose name I can’t even remember. Then there’s April, who goes to the tournament to prove to her sports-obsessed family that Scrabble is a sport and that she, April, does belong in the family. April also hopes to find some boy that she met three years ago whose name she doesn’t even know, an obsession so strange that I have difficulty taking April seriously as a character representing any possibly real person. Her friend and partner, Lucy, is just another sidekick.

I think that Wolitzer intends to interest her readers in tournament Scrabble, but the only character that I truly sympathize with is Nate, who is the only one to give up the sport entirely. Again, that may be my relationship with the game interfering.

So, what can I critique without bias? Style.

Particularly early in the book, Wolitzer forgets her purpose—storytelling—in favor of explaining the rules of Scrabble and makes several stylistic mistakes in so doing, most notably including four full pages of two-letter words in list form (an appendix would make for far more natural prose). She also over-explains minor details of the game that matter little to the story and holds the readers’ hands through the characters’ thoughts to make sure they don’t lose a single step that could be assumed.

Wolitzer has made me question the use of the omniscient voice. At first, I thought I just disliked omniscient, but Tolkien uses omniscient. Wolitzer’s problem is that she uses the omniscient to enter everyone’s minds whenever the fancy strikes her with often no transition between character’s points of view. It’s confusing at times. Multiple limited points of view would have served her far better, I think.

All of the characters are marred by awkward, unnatural dialogue. It is not constant, but frequent enough to make me frown.

If you’re looking for a middle grade boys’ book lauding the mind over brawn, about trying to fit in, about strained family relations come to reconciliation, I suggest you go read How To Train Your Dragon instead.

*

Wolitzer, Meg. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. New York: Dutton-Penguin, 2011.

This review is written from an advanced reading copy of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, which I got from a family friend, Mrs. Guest, who is thanked in the acknowledgements for her support and wisdom. It has not been corrected by the author, publisher, or printer, meaning that there might still be hope. Anyone who has read a copy of the final print, please do tell me what was edited. (I intend to find this book on a self and flip through, but I won’t buy it.)

This review is not endorsed by Mrs. Guest, Meg Wolitzer, Dutton, or Penguin. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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