Monday, July 29, 2013

A Safe Bet

The Perfect Play
by Louise Wener
Published by William Morrow
4 Out of 5 Stars

So I bought this book because I thought it would be about poker. And it was, kind of, but mainly that cover and blurb is doing some serious bluffing because it's about much more.

Audrey Ungar should be satisfied with her life--she's in her early thirties, she's traveled the world, she's a math genius, and she has steady employment, loyal friends, and the perfect-for-her boyfriend. However, for Audrey, there will forever be one thing missing: her father. Suffering from a gambling addiction, her father abandoned the family when Audrey was eleven years old. Audrey does everything she can to bring her wayward father's attention back to the family: she becomes a math prodigy and, when her genius gets her everyone's admiration but his, she turns to shoplifting. Because of his abandonment, the adult Audrey feels the need to obsessively control everything in her life. 

Audrey's world is shaken, however, when her step-father reveals that her father tried to keep in touch with her long ago, but her step-father discouraged him because he felt the impact on Audrey could only be a negative one. This admission causes Audrey to seek out her father through the only thing he loved: the game of poker. Doing so brings Audrey into contact with Big Louie, an agoraphobic, obese, former card hustler who promises to teach Audrey the game and use his tournament connections to help Audrey track down the man who gambled away her childhood happiness. Such help doesn't come freely and Audrey finds that she has an impossible debt to pay for Big Louie's help. 

The Perfect Play has very little to do with the game of poker and is more about the chances, gambles, and fortunes that shape our own lives. In learning about poker, Audrey's really seeking to understand the man who left her behind. But the danger in doing so is that Audrey probably already understands her father better than she realizes: both are mathematical geniuses, both have obsessive personalities, and both have a laser-like focus that shuts everyone else out. As Audrey becomes better at the game, we begin to wonder if Audrey realizes how precariously close she's coming to living out the sins of her father and risking everything and everyone she should value. 

Louise Wener also sets up some clever bluffs throughout the narrative. Some things that seem a little cliche or implausible are turned on their head by the novel's end and a few of the plot lines that I scoffed at as predictably heading toward a particular end cleverly dodge in a different direction. Her strongest suit is creating believably flawed, yet incredibly likable characters. I really, truly like Audrey--something I can rarely say of women in fiction. The dialogue is often witty and funny, in a day-to-day sort of way. These conversations sound like those real people with genuine senses of humor and close relationships would have.

If the novel has a flaw, it may be that the poker game we all knew the novel would eventually be heading towards happens at the very end and seems somewhat rushed, lacking any real sense of tension. But, really, in the end, the novel isn't about the game anyway. It's about the players.

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