Art of Fielding, The

Chad Harbach
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' 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 after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others.

Reviews

Reviewed: 2016-01-14
I've been fantasizing about writing this review, because this is the worst book I have read in quite some time. I know that my hatred is at least partially driven by the fact that this is the first book I've read after finishing The Goldfinch, which was magnificent; any fiction would feel poorly written and paltry next to it. I'm a huge baseball fan (go Bucs!) and I love a good fictionalized account of the baseball life, so I was really looking forward to this one. I've had it on my to-read list since it landed on a bunch of best of 2011 round-ups. Part of me is bummed that it was so bad, but mostly I'm confused by all of the five-star reviews and plaudits.

First, this is just not a well-written book. A character's phone "ring-a-ding-dings" on his desk (seriously). There's a lot of pseudo-philosophical junk spewed by the characters in their darkest hours. According to my Kindle, these passages were the most highlighted, but they make no sense. Example: "Had he learned would he ever learn to discard the thoughts he could not use? It remained an open question, how much sympathy love could stand." What? This reads like a terrible young adult novel where every character sounds and talks and thinks the same.

Second, it was extremely tough for the ridiculously named characters (there is seriously a guy named Quentin Quisp) to endear themselves to me. I just could not bother to care about these people. I had no stake in Henry's career, Mike's connection to his college, or Pella's reasserting of her independence. Everyone was two-dimensional and seemed to exist solely for the author to put them in other characters' ways. I can almost see the author's map of the plot in my head: X character has to appear at this time so Y can happen. X character will never be heard from again.

Third, even when I did manage to scrounge up a modicum of interest in the characters' lives, I found myself falling into massive plot holes. It's not a short book, but subplots are proposed and then never heard about again. Things that seem like they'll come back don't; things that seem like throwaway ideas turn out to be everywhere.

It's just.. a perfect storm of terrible. I need a palate cleanser.
Wish I could get a Westish Harpooners ball cap.<br /><br />Harbach is brilliant at conveying the tension of the star shortstop's crisis of confidence and other elements of the game and its preparations. Within those constraints, there is also some wonderful character development and exposition on baseball-as-metaphor that touches me.<br /><br />There are characters and situations outside the game depicted in the Art of Fielding, as well. And those are a little flatter. I love the touches of history Harbach creates for the college and its president. The structure of the novel is just right. But the romances and intertwined paths of the characters that are not playing the game fall a little into caricature. I want some more dimension to Pella and Owen, in particular.<br /><br />I can't decide if this is a three-star effort deserving of extra credit for avoiding shortcuts (a rape-free star) or a four-star book that should be pushed to the top. I'm having trouble hanging five stars on this one.
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