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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Word Nerds Rejoice: New Books — The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

Courtesy of Dutton Children's Books
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

There simply aren’t enough good suspenseful dramedies that revolve around Scrabble. So I would like to thank Meg Wolitzer for her new novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. As a word nerd myself, I thoroughly enjoyed watching her characters drill one another on anagrams, strategize about ways to use a Q, and puzzle over why a word like “za” is legal when no one in the world actually refers to pizza as “za” (although that’s what the Scrabble dictionary says it means).

But I’m making the book sound like a Words With Friends chat board: It’s not. The plot revolves around a national Scrabble youth tournament and the various pairs of middle-schoolers who trek across the country to out-word one another. It has a somewhat similar feel to one of my favorite documentaries, Spellbound (about the contestants in the Scripps Spelling Bee). And the playoffs in Fingertips can be just as taut and suspenseful as the drawn out letter-by-letter spellings in that film.

It helps that the cast of kids here is extremely likable. You’ve got the titular Duncan, a poor, picked-on boy whose cachet in school rises when a popular kid chooses him as his Scrabble partner. And there’s April Blunt, whose geekish love of words makes her the black sheep among her family of workout-mad triathlete types. And Nate Saviano, a Manhattan skateboard buff whose father — a former Scrabble almost-champion — forces him to play. There are others, too. And you’re not really rooting against any of them, so it becomes almost painful knowing that only one duo can win in the end.

Most of the what goes on in these pages is realistic kids-dealing-with-the-pains-of-being-kids Judy Blume-ish material. But there is an out-of-left-field supernatural-ish twist in that Duncan has the power to “see” with his fingertips. He can read letters sightlessly, by merely touching them. Therefore, he should be able to feel the letters on Scrabble tiles and choose a perfect hand on each turn. The question becomes whether he will use this power to cheat or not. And there’s a lot of tension in the making that decision. Which is all the better for us readers, of course.

Best for: Scrabble geeks; fans of realistic kid fiction who can handle a little suspension of disbelief now and then; outsider-ish tweens and the people who love them.

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