My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Westing Game was an odd little YA book. It was a Newberry winner (not to mention other awards) in the 70s and it’s one of those ones that makes me think what did I miss? To be fair, I’m reading this forty years after it was written and the ideas might seem tired now that didn’t then. That said, I doubt this would ever fly as a YA book these days as it’s not all about the teens. There are four teens, two people in their twenties and dozen older adults so that right there is a strange dynamic and we spend time floating through all their heads (though a few are more prominent than others and even at that, it’s not always the teens pov we spend time in) and I do mean float so if omniscient pov isn’t for you, pass on this.
And it’s not that I hate this book. I just found it odd. A group of people were given a special invite to move into a brand new apartment complex, Sunset Towers: Dr. Jake Wexler (podiatrist) and his wife, Grace (social climber) and their two daughters, Angela (the perfect daughter, set to marry plastic surgery intern, Denton Deere) and Turtle (brat but smart); The Theodorakis family who sets up a coffee shop in the lobby , Theo (a high school senior who wants to be a writer) and Chris (wheelchair bound by some unnamed neurologic disease, birdwatching enthusiast) are the sons; Sydelle Pulaski (secretary); The Hoo family, James (restaurateur), Madam Hoo (recent Chinese immigrant and cook) and his son Doug (track star); Josie-Jo Ford (judge); Flora Baumbach (dressmaker) .
Strangely enough all of them move in as asked. Hoo has his Chinese restaurant on the fifth floor and Wexler is office on the first floor. Overlooking the apartments is Sam Westing’s home. Westing is a paper product multimillionaire and recluse. We learn right off that one of the people invited into the apartment was the wrong person but we don’t know which one.
The teens end up daring each other, thanks to the mentally slow delivery boy, Otis Amber, to go spend the night in Westing’s house where his body is rotting. To their shock they do find his body and the game kicks off. Plum, his lawyer calls in all the tenants (excluding Theo and Chris’s parents) and along with Sandy McSouthers (doorman at the apartment) and Berthe Crow (apartment housekeeper) and Angel’s fiancé, Dr. Deer. They’re considered Westing’s heirs for some mysterious reason and in order to “win” being his heir they have to play his game. They’ll be broken into teams of two and will receive ten grand for just showing up (two don’t and forfeit that money). They’re given a bunch of clues, each team with different clues and the will is read (also a clue).
Westing puts out there that he’s been murdered and they’re to use these clues to solve his murder (as obviously he expected to be killed and knew who’d do it as he had enemies). They’re offered a final clue, it’s not what you have that matters, it’s what you don’t. They have a specified time limit and at the end of that they will get another ten thousand for giving their answer as to who killed him. Whoever is right inherits two hundred million.
The rest of the novella deals with them trying to find the killer. Some of them (namely the teens) didn’t know Westing. The adults often had a connection to him, usually unpleasant as he was a ruthless businessman (ala Carnegie, Rockefeller, well any businessman you care to name who made billions on the backs of others) And honestly none of the ‘heirs’ are that nice in and of themselves which was part of my problem with this. They weren’t exactly unreliable narrators but they were secretive.
I think in many ways that was the heart of this book and might be the reason it won the Newbury. It looked into the hearts of the characters and showed everyone’s secret struggles. Jake Wexler is a decent man but Grace is casually racist (without realizing it), potentially embarrassed to be married to a Jewish man (he worries on that) who idolizes one daughter (Angela) and thinks the other (Turtle, actual name Tabitha-Ruth) was switched at birth. Angela is her mother’s door mat, not sure she wants to marry and secretly longing to return to school and be a doctor (which in the 70s was hard for women). Turtle acts out because she has no attention from her mother but honestly at thirteen kicking people in the shins all the time and running off seems so childish. Sydelle Pulaski is so desperately unhappy and feeling unnoticed and unwanted that she buys crutches, paints them gaily and pretends to have a muscle ‘wasting’ disease just to get attention.
Turtle bonds to Flora the dressmaker who was her partner in the game. Flora needs a daughter to love and Turtle wants to have an attentive mom. Theo and Chris are relatively sweet though Theo feels guilty that he resents that his dreams are being set aside so he could care for his ailing brother. James Hoo is a miserably unhappy man who believes Westing stole his idea for paper diapers (which in the 70s disposable diapers were relatively new and a million dollar idea) and resents his son for not being more studious. Doug just wants to be a track star. Madam Hoo doesn’t speak the language and just wants to go home, stealing stuff so she can use it to go back to China. Judge Ford also has connections to Westing as do Crow, McSouthers and Amber.
Being snowbound and having someone setting off small but mostly harmless explosions adds some tension to the story but there isn’t enough of it. The stakes don’t seem high enough or something. It felt flat in that area. The way things resolve you get the idea Westing was trying to do good and get these people to work together, to help each other be better people (because most of them are so broken) but that doesn’t really happen until the epilogue which skips into the immediate future and then down the road a decade or more and we see the long term effects of the game.
There is one thing that does really stand out about this novel. It might be dated in many ways but it would be right at home today at diversity representation. Wexler’s Jewish, Ford is African-American (a woman of color as a judge was not seen much in the 70s), Hoo’s family is obviously Chinese and Chris is disabled. That said, I’m not sure the representation was done particularly well in some cases (Chris’s speech impediment could be a bit cringe worthy sometimes) but given the time period, it’s more than I expected to see.
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