Having decided to read this book before watching the Netflix series, I was more than positively surprised by it! I would even say that it ended up being one of the favourite discoveries of the year for me. My biggest hesitation (as I can imagine it being for a lot of other readers), was the fact that I have no knowledge whatsoever on the game of chess. I was wondering whether I’d still be able to catch the essence of the book or whether I would be able to enjoy it completely and I can now confirm that it’s not an obstacle for the reading experience whatsoever! This rather shows the talent of the author who managed to turn “The Queen’s Gambit” into a fast-paced and entertaining story that makes you want to continue reading it late into the night, while very often keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The story’s focus is on the main character, Beth, at all times. A girl who loses her parents at an early age but manages to discover her talent for playing chess while living at an orphanage. We follow her through her life, from childhood into adulthood, watching her grow, develop, live through ups and downs in her personal and professional aspects of life. An important theme within the book is the topic of addiction to various substances – tranquillising pills at a young age, going into cigarettes and alcohol the older Beth gets. You get a very personal insight into her inner world, the struggles she continuously carries on through her life and vivid representations of what it’s like to live with an addiction. Besides that, the topics of gender and race get a spotlight on them, especially because chess has been and still is a very white-male dominant field.
That night for the first time she took three pills, one after the other. Little prickles went across the hairs on the back of her neck; she had discovered something important. She let the glow spread all over her, lying on her cot in her faded blue pajamas in the worst place in the Girls’ Ward, near the door to the corridor and across from the bathroom. Something in her life was solved: she knew hot to make herself feel good in the stomach and in the tense joints in her arms and legs, with the pills the orphanage gave her.p. 8
The room was full of people talking and a few playing; most of them were young men or boys. Beth saw one woman and no colored people.p. 60
Listening to the two of them, she had felt something unpleasant and familiar: the sense that chess was a thing between men, and she was an outsider. She hated that feeling.p. 103
While reading, you get to live through a lot of emotional complexity of the main character, whereas the author manages to immerse you completely into that different world. The only reason why I have given the 4/5 ★ rating instead of the full one was because the style was a bit too simple for my taste. There’s not much to the language and the expressions used, it is kept to its bare minimum to carry the story, with a few little highlights every now & then.
Beth sat in the green armchair for hours, not hearing Mrs. Wheatley’s gentle snores, not sensing the strange smell of a Mexican hotel in her nostrils, feeling somehow that she might fall from a precipice, that sitting over her chessboard she had bought at Purcell’s Kentucky, she was actually poised over an abyss, sustained there only by the bizarre mental equipment that had fitted her for this elegant and deadly game”. On the board there was danger everywhere.p. 128
Their expensive coats would be off and their sleeves rolled up and they would be exploring her position, looking for weaknesses already there or ten moves down the line, probing the arrangement of white pieces as though it were her body and they were surgeons ready to dissect.p. 234
The only thing that was even more captivating than the book, was the series on Netflix!There you get to visually dive into the style of the 50s & 60s, while feasting your eyes on absolutely stunning shooting locations. Only small details have been modified, so that you can enjoy watching it without becoming frustrated why so much of the story is so different. The mix of both, the book and the series, is something I would absolutely recommend to you if you’re looking for a special kind of treat to finish off the year with! 🙂
Edition: ISBN 978-1-474-60084-2
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016