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Beginner’s Luck (Book Review)

April 2, 2009

Beginner’s Luck
Laura Pedersen
Ballantine Books 2003
Paperback $13.95 368 pages

Hallie Palmer dreams of getting out of her crowded, chaotic house, where seven siblings vie for her parents’ attention. (And there’s another baby on the way.) Her gift for games of chance has helped her save almost enough money for a car- and, so far, nobody’s noticed that she’s at the casino or the race track, instead of in school.
But, as this smart, funny novel begins, Hallie’s been kicked out of the casino, lost all her car money on a bad bet at the track. Her parents have grounded her, and there are murmurs in town that she’s to blame for a string of thefts in the close-knit community.

Hallie’s about ready to fold. She answers an ad in the local paper for a yard person, and finds her way to the eccentric Stockton family. Ms. Olivia, at sixty-something, is raising Bohemian hell with her latest political activist cause, while taking care of her husband, the Judge. Mr. Bernard worries that his mother’s going crazy, and takes out his stresses on gourmet recipes in the kitchen. Mr. Bernard’s partner, Mr. Gil, runs the antique store, and is sure he’s vastly more normal than his in-laws, the Stocktons. There’s also a chimp who mixes a mean Singapore Sling after Church on Sundays.

Hallie’s voice is wisecracking and vulnerable all at once. She’s surrounded by the eccentric, goofy, warmhearted Stocktons, sort of like Auntie Mame in triplicate. The novel hit two of my sweet spots: for a good YA-ish small town tale, and a gambling caper in the vein of “Bringing Down the House” or “Eudaemonic Pie.” While it’s not initially clear to anyone, even Hallie herself, why she ran away from home, it’s clear that the Stocktons are a good, nurturing surrogate family, part wisdom and part wish fulfillment, in all their giddy, and wonderful strangeness. (I wish the Stocktons lived in my town, and would adopt me!)

This novel came as a surprise. I think I picked it up at Em’s book swap several months ago. I’m very, very glad I did. I have mixed feelings, though, about learning that the library has Pedersen’s continuation of the story. I’d love to hang out with Hallie’s voice and character, and the Stocktons again… but I’m not sure more of the story needs to be told. I’ll report back once I’ve read on.

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