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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

January 23, 2012

In The Art of Fielding, we see young men who know that their four years on the baseball diamond at Westish College are all that remain of their sporting careers. Only their preternaturally gifted fielder, Henry Skrimshander, seems to have the chance to keep his dream – and theirs, vicariously – alive, until a routine throw goes disastrously off course, and the fates of five people are upended.

After his throw threatens to ruin his roommate Owen’s future, Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his; while Mike Schwartz, the team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. Keeping a keen eye on them all, college president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, falls unexpectedly and dangerously in love, much to the surprise of his daughter, Pella, who has returned to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

I have to admit that when I first heard about ‘The Art of Fielding,’ and all the rave reviews that were appearing across the press and on Twitter, I wrote it off immediately as something I would never read because it’s about baseball. I’m sure many women out there will do the same. I’ve never been into sports and completely loathe the many nights when my other half insists on watching football. However, once I started seeing a few reviews online from other female readers, who still insisted that you didn’t need to like baseball to enjoy it, I decided I would give it a shot. And now I can safely say I agree with them wholeheartedly I absolutely loved it! It just goes to show that if you take a step outside of your comfort zone, and try something new, you will often be very surprised at what you find.

Looking back on ‘The Art of Fielding’ now after finishing it a few days ago, I honestly don’t see it as a ‘book about baseball.’ Yes it has baseball in it, but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about having dreams for the future and watching them come alive or fade away. It’s about unyielding friendships that will support you through the good and the bad. It’s about finding what makes you happy, even if it’s in a place you never thought to look before.

Henry Skrimshander has a remarkable talent as shortstop in the game of baseball. To him it comes naturally and almost without effort, and most importantly he never makes a single error. This soon comes to the attention of Mike Schwartz, the team captain of the baseball team at Westish College. Mike believes in Henry every step of the way, helping to make his dreams come true, dreams that Henry never really thought would come true. The relationship between Mike and Henry is one the most wonderful and most realistic friendships I have ever come across in fiction before. Mike watches and analyses Henry’s every move and pushes him to be better and better. Mike realises that whilst he is a good player, he lacks the natural talent that Henry has. Suffering with endless muscle ailments, Mike knows his future as a baseball player is drawing to an end, and so it seems that part of Mike’s ‘push’ for Henry to be great, is not only so as Henry can live out his dreams, but so that Mike can live his dream through him vicariously. Of course, Mike didn’t quite prepare himself for what it would feel like, to watch Henry be offered thousands of dollars to play pro-baseball, whilst Mike is still figuring out exactly what he wants to do next in life. The strain on their friendship soon becomes evident, as the dream threatens to come between them both. But things aren’t quite smooth-sailing for Henry either. The pressures of playing in front of scouts and with his whole future balancing on how he plays for the next few months of his life, Henry starts making errors. Costly errors. He can no longer play a single game without making an error. With his teammates getting edgy, it falls to Mike to defend Henry and support him for as long as it takes.

What I love most about Henry is the fact that he simply just loves baseball. It’s not about money or fame. I don’t think he ever even considered these things before coming to Westish College. There was just something about the game of baseball that made Henry happy in a way like nothing else could. He was clearly relaxed on the field, making no errors whatsoever, and not really thinking it through. It all just became reflex actions, like a well-oiled machine. It’s only when the possibility of making an actual career out of baseball started to seem real that he started to think about the game. For Henry, the joy of the game was lost. He is soon taken on a turbulent journey of self-discovery that will help him get back on his feet, and back to the heart of the game and everything that made him happy before.

My favourite character is definitely Mike, however. There is something incredibly endearing about this huge bulky figure of a man who is suffering with numerous aches and pains, has a love of baseball but knows he will never make it as a pro-player, but who is willing to put every bit of encouragement he has into this boy he’s only just met. Mike has had a very tough childhood, and it’s easy to see that these experiences have helped shaped him into the ‘father’ figure of the team. Everyone looks up to him and admires him and never questions any of his instructions. Mike soon finds love with Pella, the estranged daughter of President Affenlight, and their relationship became something that just felt ‘right’, even to me as a reader. Pella is a brilliant strong female character who often shines above the men, and holds her own. She is a breath of fresh air in this male-dominated world of baseball, and her scenes were often my favourite parts in the whole novel. Her father, President Affenlight also embarks upon a rather unexpected relationship of his own, I’m not going to talk too much about this here, as it was quite a surprise for me when I read it, and I’d like it to remain that way for you too.

The characters are really what make this novel. They are the sole reason that ‘The Art of Fielding’ isn’t a baseball book. I have to commend Chad Harbach who has managed to create such realistic and endearing characters who I still can’t get out of my head. Harbach really took me back to my student days with this one, just like Jeffrey Eugenides did with ‘The Marriage Plot’. I’ve seen some people comparing the two novels for their ‘American college’ similarities. I think Eugenides is possibly the better writer, but Harbach’s novel is much simpler in form and plot and flows much nicer. But you really do get a sense that you really know these characters like they are your best friends, teachers, or team mates. I never want to let them go.

To go back to the baseball, I would have to say I didn’t understand much of what was going on in the descriptions of the games themselves. I know some people have said you don’t need an understanding of baseball to enjoy it, and maybe you don’t, but I can’t help but think it would have been better if I did just so I could understand exactly what was happening. But most importantly of all, Harbach has the balance between baseball and the other plot-lines spot on. The novel never feels over-crowded with baseball, and never too little of it either. It’s enough to keep both sport-lovers and sport-haters happy.

I am really glad I gave this novel a chance, and that I didn’t do the typical girly thing of shying away from it just because it features baseball. It’s a brilliant novel, written in beautiful prose and with some of the most life-like characters I’ve ever come across. ‘The Art of Fielding’ may have been nine years in the making by Harbach, but it is a novel that will stay with you for a lifetime. Give it the chance it deserves and you will not be disappointed.

‘The Art of Fielding’ has been selected as one of the ‘Waterstones 11’ debut novels. To check out the rest of the list, please click here. The list this year is phenomenal and I can’t wait to make my way through them all!

‘The Art of Fielding’ it out now, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. A big thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.

Rating 

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 22:20

    *SPOILERS*

    Yay! So happy to hear you liked this one. I think you pretty much nailed it when you said the characters are what makes the book. I really liked Mike, but I was also rooting for Affenlight – to work things out with Pella, get his house, figure it out with Owen. Of course those hopes came crashing down at the end, but all in all it was a fantastic novel.

    • January 23, 2012 22:57

      Oh yes I was definitely rooting for Affenlight too…I didn’t want to talk about him and his relationship too much for fear of spoilers. But I was very sad at the end 😦 I went into the novel expecting Henry to be my favourite character, but Mike quickly took the spot for me! It certainly was a fantastic novel!

  2. February 12, 2012 17:07

    Hmmmm intriguing, you and Dan make good cases for this book, though interestingly you loved it much more than him. Its definitely the baseball that is putting me off reading it. Though it has arrived in the last 24 hours so I have decided at some point this week or next I will give it 50 pages and see how I get on.

    • February 12, 2012 18:01

      Read it! Read it! 🙂 Like I said, I *hate* sports, and it put me off originally too… but it truly is a great novel and it’s never really about the baseball… I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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