A young adult novel focusing on the card game of bridge, The Cardturner is an inter-generational story told in the second-person voice by 17-year-old Alton Richards.
Alton has a rich uncle, Lester Trapp, and, as his mother always tells him to say that Uncle Lester is Alton’s “favorite uncle,” despite the fact that he very rarely sees him. Trapp has lost his eyesight as a result of diabetes; in order to play his favorite competitive game, he needs someone to drive him to the bridge club, read his hand aloud, and turn over cards to play the game. Alton fills this role, four times a week for $75 a day.
As summer wears on, Alton and his little sister do a little research on bridge and learn the basics. Alton also learns from observing his uncle, trying to anticipate which card he will turn over next. It is clear that many people care about Uncle Lester (or his money?): Alton’s parents; his housekeeper and nurse; Trapp’s former cardturner, 17-year-old Toni and her strange family, the Castanedas.
Many others are true friends – bridge partners, past and present – who respect and admire Trapp. Spending so much time with his uncle, Alton gets to know the people in his life, and learns more about his past – especially his relationship with the Annabel Casteneda, Toni’s grandmother, who everyone said was crazy.
It turns out that 40 years ago, Trapp and Annabel were partners among bridge’s elite in 1950’s Washington D.C. Something happened to Annabel, and Trapp quit playing bridge and instead focused his energies on his business and building his fortune.
Aside from this summer job, Alton lives the life of a usual, rather boring, teenage boy. His best friend, Cliff, is dating Alton’s ex-girlfriend, Katie. Not much else is going on until he befriends Toni and starts playing bridge on his own. Cliff and Katie break up, and Cliff starts dating Toni, but Alton and Toni remain partners and very good friends. In the end, the two work together to help Trapp and Annabel realize their dream, albeit posthumously, of a national championship.
Throughout the story, Sachar interweaves the game of bridge. Recognizing that not everyone will be interested in the details of this complex game, Sachar sets the more detailed bridge narrative aside with a small sketch of a whale. A text box at the end summarizes the main points. Sachar uses an imaginary bridge expert, Syd Fox, to write an appendix explaining the fine points of some of the bridge hands.
On the surface, bridge is the game played by the characters in the book. However, the game becomes such an overwhelming part of their lives that it becomes its own setting, plot and character – a metaphor for life wherein trust, planning, knowledge and perception are the keys to success.
Alton’s character is reflective of a typical if rather philosophical teenager; this summer of bridge and building relationships is a turning point in his life. No longer just accepting what others tell him, by the end of the book he is an independent thinker, and doer.
Best appreciated by older teens at the same juncture in life, The Cardturner is certainly appropriate for middle-school students as well as high school students and adults – especially those who love the game of bridge. Short chapters keep the reader’s attention, while the second-person voice creates a bond between the reader and Alton.
Infused in the story is a little bit of history, some clairvoyance, and reference to classic literature. Clearly, Sachar has a passion for is subject – both the mind of a teenager and the game of bridge, He ingeniously melds the two into a refreshing story which requires the reader to not only think about the characters, but also the game, and perhaps their own life and motivations. Highly recommended.