Title: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
No. of Pages: 512
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Hachette Book Group
Bottom Line: A beautifully-written book that captures the nuances of baseball as well as the heartbreaking truths behind childhood dreams. You don’t necessarily have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the story, but it definitely helps.
“At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Superior, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for the big leagues. Then a routine throw goes disastrously off course and the fates of five people are upended.Henry’s life purpose is called into question. Longtime bachelor Guert Affenlight, the college’s president, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes swept up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish to start a new life after escaping an ill-fated marriage.As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets, and help one another to discover their true paths.”
Thoughts: College is an interesting time in one’s life. It is the quintessential crossroad for an individual – a concrete dividing line that few of life’s crossroads ever have. At the beginning, one’s life dreams are still unlimited and entirely possible. As a student creeps closer to his graduation date, those options and dreams become limited, sometimes severely, so that by the time of graduation the leap from the possible to the practicality of adulthood is a truly terrifying experience. Henry, Owen, and Mike are all at this essential crossroad and must make that leap into the unknown, abandoning long-cherished plans or miraculously enacting their wildest dreams. Yet college is not the only major crossroad in life’s journey; life is full of those proverbial forks in the road. Pella and Quert both face their own personal crossroad, not knowing which path will lead them in the direction they truly need, let alone desire. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding blends the lives of each of these characters and their own travails with their individual crossroads, deftly detailing the emotional toil such decisions require and establishing strong connections between characters and reader.
Each of the main characters in The Art of Fielding is lost in some fashion, and it is not until they stop fighting the paths down which fate wants to take them where they finally find what they need. During their individual journeys, one is swept up in their mini tragedies, the dramas that surrounds them, their highs, and their unspeakable lows. Mr. Harbach masterfully recreates the same feelings within a reader, dredging up all the pain and anguish associated with growing up that a reader once felt at his or her own childhood crossroad. Remarkably, he also manages to keep the drama realistic and utterly engaging. The plot moves swiftly, but there is a depth of exposition that enables a reader to empathize with and understand each of the characters. The story never feels overly lengthy and in need of severe edits; rather each scene develops with an attention to detail that enhances rather than bores. It is the type of sweeping drama that so rarely graces the bookstores these days with its thorough descriptions, large cast of characters, and ability to capture and hold a reader’s attention throughout each one of its 500+ pages.
While The Art of Fielding is more than a novel about baseball, the sport does play an intricate role in the plot, and knowing something about the sport and even liking the game will prove beneficial in some of the more detailed baseball scenes. Interestingly, while much of the locker room antics – the careful pre- and post-game rituals, the superstitions, the banter, the speeches – happen in almost every sport, there are very few team sports in which one player’s mistake is obvious to player, team, and observers alike and can cost a team the entire game. Baseball is as much a team sport as it is a completely individual sport, and Henry’s struggles are uniquely associated with the game of baseball. The understanding of baseball’s dichotomy will enhance a reader’s understanding of and appreciation for Henry’s and Mike’s problems.
Baseball as a metaphor for life – it might not be the first comparison that would occur to a person, but, if one understands the finesse, the physics, the physicality, and the mental aspects of the game, it rings surprisingly true. The Art of Fielding crosses the boundary of being a baseball novel to being a novel about life that happens to occur to baseball players by subtly highlighting the similarities and the aptness of the metaphor. A reader internalizes each of the characters’ pain and suffering because one can always draw upon similar, equally difficult, and emotional experiences. Between the brutish but generous-to-a-fault Mike, delicate Henry, suave Owen, troubled Pella, and grave Quert, a reader has a myriad of experiences upon which to reflect and relate, and a reader will do just that. Mr. Harbach, with his skillful turns of phrase, makes it too easy for a reader to empathize with each of the characters, and the result is a poignant, beautifully simple novel about the pain of growing older and wiser to which everyone can relate.