Beginner’s Luck by Laura Pedersen

Hallie Palmer is the second of seven children and her parents are pregnant again; the house feels overcrowded as it is, and she’s not sure where her parents are going to put another kid, even if her older brother does leave home in the fall for college. The regimentation of traditional large public high schools is not to her liking–the bells commanding students’ every move prevents her from concentrating–and she’s decided to leave school after being kicked off the soccer team as a result of skiving off school to gamble at the local casino. All she has to do is earn enough money to buy a car and run off to Las Vegas. Why Vegas? She’s already a skilled poker player, through a combination of skill in reading people’s reactions and general knowledge of gambling. Unfortunately, she’s been banned from the nearest casino when they figured out she was underage (and possibly cheating at cards, though merely uncannily skilled at reading people). Putting just a few bets on a horse race or too seems the way to gain her car and therefore her freedom from both the oppressive school and overcrowded family.

Unfortunately, the horses aren’t quite the sure thing her bookie promised, and she loses not only what she’d planned to bet but what remained of her “automobile” nest egg. She answers an ad in the local Star-Mart for a part time yard person and applies in person; she’s hired on the spot and begins work that day. Having decided to run away from home and school at the same time, she sneaks out to the gazebo on the Stocktons’ property and sleeps there that first night, and the next morning creeps stealthily back around the shrubbery to present herself at the front door. That subsequent night, however, she finds a folded afghan and a pillow on the daybed in the summerhouse.

Even in the first days of her work there, before everyone’s acknowledged the elephant in the backyard, Hallie seems to fit into this flamboyantly freewheeling family. Olivia is a bohemian activist who supports herself by writing porn stories. Her husband, the Judge (never named), is gently sliding farther into Alzheimer’s. Their son Bernard is gay, and an antiques dealer in a nearby town. His partner, Gil, a local theater director, is very much part of the family though not (I think) an actual resident of the household. Oh, and there’s an alcoholic assistance chimp whose human has recently died; the Stocktons have taken him in until he’s detoxed. It isn’t long before the Stocktons have taken her into a more permanent arrangement in their household, once Hallie’s parents and the school authorities track her down. Hallie declares herself an “emancipated minor”, and her parents and school authorities agree if Olivia will homeschool her.

There are a few issues I don’t quite buy, once I had a chance to step back and think about the book as a whole. Her birth family is, needless to say, rather hurt that she up and left without discussing it with them first, but accept her decision without much quibbling. The members of the weekly poker group seem rather nonchalant about a teenaged girl playing with them–she’s sixteen in the book, but has clearly been playing with them for some time. The characterization isn’t terribly sophisticated, although in fairness some of the juxtapositions are amusing. I appreciate the big stupid lunk of a football player who wants to be a botanist; for the first third of the book, he’s been presented as something of a mouth-breather, though cute; partway through the book, Hallie finds out Craig’s got something of a conservatory hidden away in a back room of his house in which he’s been breeding and raising plants as a science project. Nor did I find the poker playing priest terribly plausible.

Now, in fairness, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the priests I’ve met did play poker. Just not that priest in that book. I just wish that I didn’t get the feeling that the book might be illustrated by paintings on black velvet. The gay guy is a fabulous interior decorator and antiques dealer, who loves Audrey Hepburn and is a gourmet cook and opera lover. The bohemian old lady pickets whenever she gets a chance. Overall, though, the book is so over the top in regards cramming kooky characteristics into/onto the characters that I can’t really take any of them seriously, and the characters are saved (though barely) from cardboard movie poster cutout status by that frenetic layering of over the top quirkiness.

I think strictly speaking Beginner’s Luck is an adult book, but I’d suggest it to high school students without a qualm. The fact that the protagonist is a teenager about to finish high school contributes to that to be sure, but there’s some lessons in there that I think a lot of teenagers would do well to learn, and I don’t mean how to play poker. You’re not a goody-two shoes if you don’t want sex; Hallie isn’t exactly a naive little miss after all the gambling she’s done and all the contact she’s had with adults, but she doesn’t want to be pressured into sex before she’s ready. It’s OK to be gay but sometimes its kinder not to tell certain people. Not that I and Ms. Pedersen are advocating remaining in the closet, you understand. Bernard is about as out as it’s possible to be; everybody in the book knows his orientation except his father, which makes sense in the context of the book. It’s OK to not be like your family, or follow your family’s dreams for your adulthood, if it’s what you want and have a talent for.

Overall, it’s a good book discussion-style chicklit and/or novel for teens uncomfortable with their current situations who aren’t up for terribly edgy fiction.


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