(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran MAR 31. 2003)
One of my friends, a mother of twins who works full time outside her home (and still has time to read!) knows she has a good book when she rushes through all her other responsibilities in order to dig into her book. If she just can't wait to get at it, she knows she has a good one at hand. For me. Beginner's Luck by Laura Pedersen fit that bill.
"Was there ever a single moment about which you later wondered, 'What would my life be like now if that hadn't happened?' Would the present be the same or completely different? And do we really make choices about what will happen to us, or is it all in the hands of fate?" Beginner's Luck begins on just this auspicious note, although it's not a weighty novel by any means. Who among us hasn't wondered about such turning points? Do we take that road less traveled by? For sixteen-year-old Hallie Palmer, her turning point comes when she answers an ad posted on a store bulletin board. Hallie is a typical all-American girl, except for the fact that she's the second oldest in a family of seven, a semi-professional gambler hell bent on dropping out of her small town Ohio high school to head to Vegas. Hallie plays soccer, likes boys, is a math whiz, and has friends; she just hates school and all the trappings of adolescence. Her relative normality sets her apart from the umpteen teenage girl protagonists I've read recently all of whom seem to be withdrawn, able only to find solace in a (A) a religious cult (B) the circus or (C) art class. I'm glad to read of a girl who has problems and can solve them without hallucinating or writing dreadful poetry.
Hallie's parents are at best, distracted although who wouldn't be with seven kids at home, number eight on the way? It's Hallie's novel, though, so we only see them as "Mom" and "Dad," not necessarily the root of all evil, but pretty close. According to Hallie, she began gambling in order to have extra money in a cash-strapped household. Indian casinos, off track betting, local poker games, you name it, she's gambled in it, and probably won in it. Pedersen does not relate how Hallie acquired such knowledge, which would have been an interesting sidelight.
Hallie's quest for legitimate scratch leads her to apply for a job with the town eccentrics, the Stocktons. They are Ms. Olivia, an elderly rabble-rouser, her son, Mr. Bernard and Mr. Bernard's longtime companion, Mr. Gil. In short order, Hallie quits school and moves in with the Stocktons to work full time on the yards and gardens. In the process, she gains quite an education, academic and otherwise. The Stocktons, although infinitely different than her nuclear family provide her with the love and acceptance she craves. Pedersen draws the Stocktons with a great deal of love. The matriarch, Ms. Olivia is a true bohemian, which Hallie learns, does not necessarily mean someone from Bohemia. An ultra-liberal, Ms. Olivia picks a cause almost every week, ranging from the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico to the unfair dismissal of a town scoutmaster on the basis of his homosexuality. Her only convention being unconventionality, Ms. Olivia tutors Hallie in matters academic and otherwise. She also plays nursemaid to a recovering alcoholic named Rocky. Oh yes, Rocky is a chimpanzee. I am not making this up. Mr. Bernard and Mr. Gil, a gay couple, also love and teach Hallie, showing her a different kind of romantic love. I do slightly question Pedersen employing almost every gay stereotype in fleshing out Mr. Bernard and Mr. Gil. Was it really necessary that they are terrific cooks, have a passion for antiques and be able to belt out show tunes at the drop of a hat?
The plot also has a few holes, the biggest of which involves Hallie being accused of theft. The police officer, one of Hallie's poker buddies, threatens her with arrest unless she solves the crime, which she obligingly does. Hasn't Pedersen ever heard of "innocent until proven guilty?" And of course by studying merely a few hours a day, Hallie, a formerly diffident student, can earn enough credits to graduate with honors. But the point of the book is not the plot; it's the loving portrayal of some true characters. Hallie, and the readers, learn that you don't have to sacrifice sticking out to fit in.
- Amazon readers rating: from 62 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Beginner's Luck at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Going Away Party (1999)
- Last Call (January 2004)
- The Sweetest Hours: Loves Stories...of a King (February 2006)
Hallie Palmer novels:
- Beginner's Luck (January 2003)
- Heart's Desire (July 2005)
- The Big Shuffle (October 2006)
- Best Bet (November 2009)
- Play Money: My Brief Career on Wall Street (1991)
- Street-Smart Career Guide (1993)
- Buffalo Girl (October 2008)
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- The official Web site for Laura Pedersen
- A business description of Laura Pedersen
- MetroActive article on Laura Pedersen
- BookReporter.com interview with Laura Pedersen
- Reading Group Guide for Begnner's Luck
- TeenReads.com review of Beginner's Luck
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About the Author:
Laura Pedersen was the youngest columnist for the The New York Times, when she was hired. She still writes regularly, and is host of the TV show Laura Pedersen's Your Money and Your Life on Oxygen. Prior to that Laura was the youngest person to have a seat on the floor of the American Stock Exchange and wrote her first book, Play Money, about that experience. Laura has a finance degree from New York University's Stern School of Business.
In 1994 President Clinton honored her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. She has appeared on shows such as CNN, Oprah, Good Morning America, Primetime Live, and David Letterman. She has also performed stand-up comedy at "The Improv," among other clubs, and writes material for several well-known comedians. Laura's first novel, Going Away Party, won the Three Oaks Prize for Fiction and was published by Storyline Press in April 2001. Her short stories and humorous essays have won numerous awards and been published in literary journals and magazines.
Laura lives in New York City, teaches reading at the Booker T. Washington Learning Center in East Harlem, and is a member of the national literary association P.E.N. (poets, essayists and novelists).