The rise of a girl chess-prodigy—in a bright, crisp novel that’s almost charming and touching enough to carry...



The rise of a girl chess-prodigy—in a bright, crisp novel that’s almost charming and touching enough to carry non-chess-players through the many pages of move-by-move gamesmanship. Beth Harmon, orphaned at eight after a car-crash, winds up in the Methuen Home in Kentucky—where, fed two tranquilizers a day, she soon develops a pill-popping habit that will dog her through the years. But loner Beth develops something else at Methuen too: while cleaning erasers in the basement (privilege of the best math student), she sees the gruff, taciturn janitor playing solo chess—and she’s transfixed. Soon, sneaking to the basement at every opportunity, she watches, is at last allowed to play. . . and is promptly beating the janitor every time. (Their virtually wordless, oddly feelingful relationship is one of the understated delights here.) At twelve, however, Beth is adopted—by faded, childlike Mrs. Wheatley and her husband. . . who promptly disappears. School is grim (Beth’s a plain “brain”); money is short; Beth is reduced to stealing chess magazines and tranquilizers. But then, with $5 borrowed from the janitor, Beth enters her first local chess tournament—and is quickly earning prizes and celebrity as she and Mrs. Wheatley (a sadly endearing mother/baby) start traveling around the country, from tournament to tournament. There will be some downs along the way, of course: Beth's first loss stuns her; Mrs. Wheatley dies; affairs with fellow-players are unsatisfying; Beth strays into alcoholism—till she's rescued by bright, athletic, beautifully black Jolene, an old orphanage chum who helps Beth put a sound body around her sound mind. (Another unforced yet engaging relationship.) Still, the shape of the novel is essentially thin and predictable: Beth’s hard-won rise to the very top at age 20, with a final showdown in Moscow against the legendary Russians. And the detailed chess-play—which dominates the novel’s second, weaker half—will stymie non-aficionados, even if the chess-world atmosphere and the overall drama of chess-matches are made plainly vivid. (By contrast, the pool-hall detail in Tevis’ The Hustler was easy to make widely accessible.) For serious chess-players, then: the novel of the year, at the very least—with special, enduring appeal to every young, ambitious, would-be Master. For others, however: an on-and-off beguilement.

Pub Date: March 1, 1983

ISBN: 1400030609

Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1983

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