Sunday, January 5, 2014

Book Review: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)

Sixteen residents of Sunset Towers have been summoned as the heirs of millionaire Samuel Westing. Among them are the owner of a Chinese restaurant, a female judge, a wheelchair bound teenage boy, a podiatrist, a cleaning woman, an aged delivery boy, a doorman, a secretary, and a young girl who kicks anyone who tugs on her braid. To gain their inheritance, they must work in pairs to piece together a series of clues that will lead them to Westing’s killer.

I have always known about The Westing Game, but the only time I tried to read it, I was slightly too young and became quickly overwhelmed by the pressure of trying to solve all the riddles and uncover all the clues. Reading it as an adult, though, I am thoroughly impressed by the complexity of the plot itself, as well as the carefully developed characters and the twists and turns that lead to the game’s ultimate solution.

It is clear that Raskin knows her characters very well, and that she is purposely careful with how and when information about them is revealed. She gives the reader certain signficant details at specific moments in the story so as to further the plot without giving anything away prematurely. Though there are many, many characters, it is relatively easy to keep track of them because Raskin does give each one such a specific personality and backstory. (I did find it helpful to keep a chart at first, but as I spent more time with the characters, I found that I knew them well enough to stop taking notes on every little move they made.)

In addition to the characterization, I also enjoyed the fact that the narration is basically omniscient. While the characters have a very limited view of what is happening in the Westing game, the reader is privy to all the clues and is able to draw conclusions the characters could never reach on their own. Though the story darts in and out of different limited perspectives depending on what is happening at a given moment, the reader is always smarter than any one of the individual characters (except maybe Westing himself). I think kids, especially, enjoy the sense of superiority that comes from being smarter than the characters in a book, and from an adult perspective, I just thought it was a neat way to tell a story.

The Westing Game also manages to be quite witty in some places, and I was surprised by several wonderful moments that made me laugh out loud. On page 15, I laughed when “Sydelle Pulaski struggled out of the taxi, large end first.” On page 25, I found myself nodding in recognition at the sentence which reads, “Proud of her liberalism, Grace Windsor Wexler stood and leaned over the table to shake the black woman’s hand.” There is so much important commentary on Grace Wexler in just that one line of description. It’s absolutely perfect. I also loved that Flora Baumbach thought that dastardly was a swear word on page 30. These little moments help us get to know the foibles of the characters, and they also keep the tone of the story from becoming too dark or morose.

I am glad that I finally took the time to read The Westing Game. I am not a big re-reader, but I actually think this book would benefit from multiple readings because there is just so much to take in. I have a feeling that a second reading would only bring to light more of the author’s cleverness and that I would be that much more impressed with the way everything comes together in the end. There are few books truly like this one, so read-alikes might be difficult to find, but anyone - child or adult - who enjoys puzzles, mysteries, surprises, and great characters can find something to love in this book.

1 comment:

  1. +JMJ+

    Like you, I needed a second reading to appreciate The Westing Game. =) I know the most common charge against it is that there are too many characters, but after I got a better sense of what Ellen Raskin was aiming for, I felt that there were too few!