By Patricia Woods
PUTNAM; 296 pages; $24.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
In her debut novel, “Lottery,” Patricia Wood asks readers to experience life in an unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable, often humorous way—as a 31-year-old man with an IQ of just 76 who happens to win $12 million in the Washington State Lottery. The consistent voice and emotional logic of Perry’s first person narration anchors readers securely in his world, gently prodding them to reexamine intelligence, capability, and at what point money counter-effects society’s perceptions of people.
While at first this representation might seem awkward, even tedious, its deliberate design is a testament to Perry’s authenticity. Wood seems to want to challenge her readers from the start: Do you want to rush away, like those who tease Perry, or his mother and siblings who abandoned him? Or are you like his grandmother, who sticks by him and guides him through everything from writing things down so he can remember them to playing the lottery?
If you accept the challenge, there’s easy reward in Perry’s simple, aphoristic observations about life, such as “Convenient means that other people do not have to work so hard,” and his developing understanding of the world, rendered with appropriate restraint: “I did not win the brains lottery, but I won the other kind. Then I start to wonder. Is there a happiness lottery too? A sadness lottery? Does God sit up in heaven drawing numbers for people? … It makes me wonder about God. Is everything in life just numbers?”
The book’s most endearing facet is witnessing Perry’s sincere loyalty to his Gran, friends, and job at the Everett boatyards. When Gran dies, and one of their lottery tickets comes up a winner, the plot—and Perry—takes off. The windfall forces Perry to discern between villains and loyal friends, new possibilities and potential problems, with suspense engendered by the sole, obvious question of who might take advantage of him.
Even accounting for Perry’s slowness, there are considerable obstacles to pacing, especially midway through the book. Some events take too long to play out, such as when one character lingers in the hot tub when he is supposed to be rescuing Perry from his brother’s latest attempts to steal his money, or are uncommonly rushed, as when Perry takes an accelerated holiday in Hawaii, where Wood lives. Often the plot seems driven by answers to every “what if?” question.
These are not uncommon issues in a debut, and do not at all irreparably harm the book’s smart overall smart concept and narrative choices. And because Wood draws heavily on personal experience—setting the novel in her son’s hometown, making use of her father’s 1993 $6 million lottery-win, modeling Perry after her brother-in-law, who has severe Down’s syndrome— Lottery simply reads like a real story about real people in the best possible way, leaving readers with a memorable character whose voice and world linger in one’s imagination.