Just like most people on the internet, I have heard of and been interested in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, the new Netflix show that has been breaking all the records. Although the central theme of chess was not very close to me as I barely know the names of the figures in chess, the idea of bildungsroman providing a deeper look into addiction attracted me to this story. Upon realizing that it based on a novel of the same name originally published in 1983 and written by Walter Tevis, I decided to read it first before watching the TV show. While I cannot fully comment on the TV show as I have only watched the first two episodes, I can say that I do not regret reading the book.
The main character is Beth Harmon, an orphan with a brilliant mind for chess and it follows her through her rise in the world of chess and the fall due to her addictions. The narration of the story is from the third person and I can say that it is easy to follow and read for the most part. The style is quite straightforward and the plot is linear. Very early on, the readers are introduced to the central conflict and the goal of the main character-she wants to become the best chess player in the world. There is no real villain in the story, instead Beth’s main obstacle seem to her own addiction to tranquilizers as well as the system at large who believed that she cannot achieve her goal because she is a young girl playing a game that is overrun by older boys and men. Tevis’s storytelling technique made me interested in her story, although after a while it became obvious that Beth will indeed win. This did not make the reading less enjoyable, though, as I did enjoy the story of a young woman overcoming her obstacles and thriving in a field that she was not expected to. I do not think that he ever falls into the trap of being overly sentimental or judgmental of Beth and her decisions.
With that being said, I found myself skimming over the passages that offered detailed descriptions of most chess games that Beth played. I am aware that as a person who has never managed to learn chess (despite my grandfather’s love for the game and his attempts to teach me when I was younger) I am not exactly the target audience for these passages. However, I did enjoy the other aspects of the story; Beth’s rises and falls, relationships with other people and descriptions of how her mind works when she is playing or thinking about chess. In that sense, I was way more interested in the characters of the story and the overall plot than chess. I am sure that if you are interested in chess, you will enjoy these passages more than I did. From what I gathered in articles about the show and the book, the games author described in the story were actually quite fascinating. Unfortunately, the intricacies and the genius of it completely flew over my head and I cannot say that I am anymore interested in picking up a black and white board and finally learning a bit more about chess. This did not ruin my enjoyment in this book, but I am sure I would love it even more if it was about a game I cared about. What did you think about this? Are you interested in chess?
As I already mentioned, Beth Harmon is the main character of the novel and I really enjoyed having her a central focus of the story. When she is first introduced, she is already alone in the world with both of her parents dying, and she is sent to an orphanage. She is a fascinating character as we do observe the consequences both of her immense and undeniable talent but also of her loneliness and isolation, even after becoming successful doing what she loves the most. Her addiction got the best of her at many times and for me it was difficult reading about days when she could not get out of bed because she was too drunk or high the night before. This is where some of the biggest criticism of this book lays for me-her very serious, almost life long, addiction to alcohol and pills is resolved rather quickly through adopting a couple of healthy lifestyle changes. Although it is mentioned later on that she is temped, she never once slips up and follows the habits without a mistake. It is admirable that Tevis focused on the issues of the addictions that can happen in such highly competitive environments especially to people with trauma, such as Beth, but this quick resolution without really getting to the bottom of her issues left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth as it felt a bit irresponsible. That being said, I did enjoy the ending of the book. Without revealing too much about it, all I can say is that it is probably the happiest ending Beth could get.
The other characters are not entirely developed and are more like symbols in Beth’s journey than the actual people, but I did not mind it as much and I believe that the characters that take up more space in her life are better developed. A lot of Beth’s opponents, especially at the beginning, when she was very young are described in couple of sentences and I think that also reflects what she thought of them and how fleeting they are in her life. On the other hand, her potential and real love interests are somewhat better developed as it shows that she is more interested in them outside of their chess games. I enjoyed reading about developing of her and Benny’s relationship as it seemed realistic that two stubborn and passionate people would often argue, but also come through for each other. Besides Beth, another character I enjoyed was Mrs Wheatley, Beth’s adoptive mother. Although dealing with addiction herself and at first, not really supporting Beth’s passion, she changed the story after realizing that chess can indeed bring profit. Their relationship was heart-warming and intense, albeit not the healthiest one as often times Beth came across as more of an adult and responsible for the two. However, the first time Beth referred to her as ‘mother’, it made me very happy as fundamentally she is the one who cared about her the most.
On the other hand, I feel like Jolene’s story arc of the only person of color in the novel was a huge waste. At the beginning, it felt like Jolene made peace with the fact that she will never get adopted as she is a black kid in the 1960s and made herself comfortable where she is. She felt a bit under the stereotype of a wise, older black woman, but I genuinely enjoyed the relationship between her and Beth as she seemed to genuinely care about Beth. However, the fact that she sexually assaulted Beth and it was brushed off and never seriously brought up again made me extremely uncomfortable. I am not sure what purpose this even served, except maybe to show that she is older and therefore more sexually mature, but I think that could have been shown in a million other ways rather than her sexually assaulting a child. Despite this, Beth does not even mention Jolene until she is needed again as kind of deus ex machina solution to her addiction, and she shows up. I can appreciate that there is a character of color, but I think that huge chance for discussion about race in that time was wasted in her character. Why introduce the character of color and put such a strong emphasis on her skin color only to make a sexual predator and a savior of the main character? What is her opinion of Jolene’s character?
While there are a lot of flaws in this novel and its main premise is not something I am interested or well versed in, I did overall enjoy it. I think that Beth is a great main character and I did enjoy reading about her rise and fall. I will definitely finish watching the TV show and see how much of the book was changed and adapted to fit the small screen format. I am also curious to see how it was adapted to fit into the 21th century as this book was a product of its time in his relation to Russians and people of color. What did you think of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ both the book and the TV show?