So… The Queens Gambit by Walter Tevis… the man who wrote The Hustler… I began reading it on the advice of author Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient)… but I found I could not share Mister Ondaatje’s enthusiasm for the book… so I declined farther reading about half-way through.
I love the game of chess, and I’ve seen a few good movies in which chess figures prominently, but I’ve never yet read a good novel about the game. The man character of Tevis’s book is Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, orphaned girl-child and, turns out, chess prodigy. Because the story is told basically from her point of view (limited third person), the language we read and thoughts we overhear are a little simple at the beginning of the book– or at least that’s what I had assumed. Truth is, even as the book progresses and Beth grows older, neither the language nor the inner mental landscape mature much. This kiddie-talk style was off-putting to me.
Also, I thought Tevis sometimes went on for too long about small events, providing a wealth of half-beat -by- half-beat detail that crossed the line from explication to boring. For instance, it took him several ho-hum pages to describe the theft of a bottle from a store-room. It wasn’t as bad as Steinback taking a whole chapter to describe a turtle crossing the road, but it was long and tedious enough.
Furthermore, even as a chess player myself, I was not as excited as I felt I should have been about the games spotlighted in the story. Lastly, I found the main character –fixated in a yawning sort of way on the details of the game– about as interesting as a cup of warm milk. None of the characters really grabbed me.
So… sorry Mister Ondaatje, but I find we disagree yet again on literary merit. Actually, this the second time I’ve picked on Mike [see this previous post]. But he doesn’t strike me as the sort to hold grudges.