CBR Review #6: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Don’t you love it when something is just as good as you remember it being?

I’ll expound on that happy thought in a minute, but first, some housekeeping.

1) I know I’m behind on my reviewing. What can I say? Life happens. (Sigh)

2) If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my review of CBR #5, Patience Bloom’s Romance Is My Day Job, you can find it here. Remember: If you want to buy a copy, please click through to Amazon from the CBR site, so that any proceeds can benefit cancer research.

3) I just peeked at my stats, and it looks as though I’m getting page views from the United States and…Malawi. How cool is that? I’m not aware that I’ve ever met anyone from Malawi, but  to my unknown African friend(s): Greetings! Welcome! I hope the weather is better there than it is here!

Let us proceed.

So you know how you reach a certain age and you start revisiting things you loved back when you were young, and you find it…lacking? Like, you can see where eleven-year-old you thought it was the bomb diggity…maybe…kind of…but now, cynical and jaded adult-you sees how ridiculous or poorly written/drawn/acted or unrealistic or pointless the entire affair is? And then you think, [Deity of Choice], adulthood SUCKS BALLS, because back when I was eleven I was enthralled by this shite, and I loved being absorbed in this particular world, and in fact it got me through some very difficult times, but now that I’m [redacted] years old I can see how crappy it really was, and I’m torn between loyalty to the author/artist/actors for giving me hours of enjoyment, defiance (“No, seriously, Sweet Valley High was fucking FABULOUS!”),  and face-scalding SHAME for having had such rotten taste when I was a tween.

That’s why it feels so. damn. good to find a book that actually stands the test of time. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is as good now as it was when I read it in fifth grade; I always find something new to appreciate in Louisa May Alcott’s juveniles; and Susan Howatch’s family sagas, to which I came earlier than most, remain great fun. To this list I can confidently add Ellen Raskin’s Newbery-winning The Westing Game, which I discovered in 1979 and finally re-read the day before yesterday. If you, too, loved it in fifth grade, don’t be afraid to revisit it. This is an awesome book.

For those of you who haven’t gotten around to it yet (and why not?), The Westing Game relates the adventures of sixteen people (some singles, some families, none related) who are offered space at a too-good-to-be-true rate in Sunset Towers, a swanky new apartment building, and are subsequently informed that they are the heirs of the paper-products magnate (and owner of Sunset Towers) Samuel Westing, whose death is announced early on. All they have to do to win the (eye-poppingly enormous) inheritance is solve the mystery. What mystery? Well, they kind of have to figure that out too.

The group is broken into teams of two unrelated “players,” and at the start each team is provided with an envelope containing several apparently random words and a check for $10,000. And that’s all. As the teams work together to solve the mystery (whatever it is), they must face disasters both natural and unnatural; personal crises — most of them turn out to have some connection with Westing, which they may or may not be willing to disclose, or in fact even realize; the vagaries of the stock market; and the occasional strategically-placed bomb. Meanwhile, it quickly becomes apparent that someone off-stage is pulling the strings in this particular show. Could it be Sam Westing himself…from beyond the grave?

As the Westing heirs puzzle through this, um, puzzle, they get to know one another, and everyone — from a wheelchair-bound teenaged birdwatcher to a Chinese bride without a word of English to a snobbish society matron to an ambitious judge to an energetic secretary who shouldn’t even be there in the first place — must learn to trust themselves and one another, and to discover and declare who they really are. Everyone has a believable character arc, and everyone ends up a winner, in one way or another. (But only one of them will be Sam Westing’s true heir.)

What can I say? If you loved this book before, you’ll probably love it still; when I read it, I remembered much of the broad outline, but was surprised at how much I picked up while reading it as an adult that I missed as an 11-year-old. If you’ve never had time for it before, go forth and read! Come for the intricate plotting; stay for the lively dialogue, clever wordplay, and rich characters. You won’t be disappointed. You, too, may strike it rich who dares to play the Westing game.

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