Book Review: Mr. Wizard

Do you have good and bad reading weeks? We do too. But luckily for us, this week has been a good reading week. Our external reviewer Chris has a new review of Mr. Wizard by Jeff Wallach for us to read.

Mr. Wizard book cover

Synopsis: Two days before her death, Jenny Elliot suggests to her fifty-year-old son Phillip that, being half Irish, he should be more careful about his drinking. Phillip, along with his brother Spencer, has grown up believing they were the fully Jewish-American offspring of Jenny and her late husband who died in the Vietnam War. Was his mother uttering some dementia-inspired fantasy, or was her true character shining through in her last moments to leave the brothers a clue to their real heritage? After her death, Phillip decides to take a DNA test.

The brothers set off on a genetic treasure hunt in search of who they really are—and what that might mean. Are they purely products of their genetics; or were they formed more completely by their social interactions and upbringing? Are they merely victims of randomness; or are they some combination of those factors? And who, exactly, is Mr. Wizard?

Jeff Wallach is a gifted writer. He brings his characters to life with sparse broad strokes similar to the way a painter can create a recognizable negative space portrait using a wide brush for painting houses.

negative space potrait

In any field, when someone can make the difficult appear easy then you know you’re dealing with an artist. Wallach makes creating real characters look effortless. We’re brought inside the family with inside jokes so when the brothers quip one-liners the readers know the story behind the one-liner, thus making them feel as if they’re also in on the inside joke. For example, when one of the brothers says over the phone to the other brother (paraphrased so as to avoid spoilers) “now she really is a liar”, and the other ones says, “She’s dead then”, you understand the backstory, the inside joke, and how he knows she’s dead. So much information conveyed with such simple sentences, a bit like Tamarian language in Star Trek. Anyone wishing to be an author should study how Wallach makes his characters real to the readers, how he can describe characters without actually describing them. I thoroughly admired this aspect of his writing.

Aside from admiring and liking his technical mastery Wallach has written a lovely book, one of the best that I’ve read this year. After Phillip and Spencer’s mom dies—which she does in one sentence that grabs the reader with its sparseness—they begin to wonder about their father because of their mother’s last cryptic statement. Was he really killed in action, where did he come from, where was his family, is he really their father, why was their mother so cryptic about his past and her past? I was pulled right into the detective work.

The pacing slows about 2/3rds of the way through. The detective work seems to have found the answers and the book switches from unraveling mysteries to dealing with the implications of what these discoveries mean for the brothers. Are brother’s brothers and family’s families because of genetics? What role does nurture and shared lifestyle play in families, or does genetics rule all? Are you any less of a family when you find out you’re not who you thought you were?

For me, this was the least interesting part of the book because long ago I arrived at decisions that satisfy me. Other people though may find the discussions—woven throughout with the typical brothers’ one-liners and humor that make the book so engaging—equally as interesting.

Not all mysteries were answered. The mystery surrounding Mr. Wizard and another person who had an eerily similar fate as Mr. Wizard were not answered. Was it coincidence or something more? But, perhaps this is as it should be—life isn’t always wrapped up like a neat package; there are often loose ends, unanswered questions, questions that may require half a lifetime to answer, and another half a lifetime to accept. However, I had thought there’d be more of a focus on the Mr. Wizard aspect given that’s the title of the book.

Then again, that fits the quirky book chapter names. Chapters are named after people or things that are mentioned just once and that have no real relevance to the story itself. E.g., the chapter named Mick Jagger is based on an irrelevant joke. Other parts of that chapter deal with more seminal issues that are central to the characters and the story itself, such as the story of the mulligan (which would be a good chapter name except then Wallach would break the pattern of naming chapters after non-incidents). Incidentally, I thought the mulligan story, which gives insight into the character of Spencer and the golf pro, was done well. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

I highly recommend this book. Enjoyable, witty, with likable relatable characters as they seek to discover their mother’s secrets and deal with answers they receive. And it has a touching ending. Who doesn’t like a touching ending?

Book Rating: 5/5

You can buy this book on Amazon and find it on Goodreads.

Disclaimer: The author sent this book to us in an ebook format to read and give an honest review.

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