Many fans of baseball swear that the sport is about more than shortstops, base hits, and game-winning runs. They are convinced that the sport teaches lessons that are integral to the development of athletes into well-rounded members of society. From the idea of responsibility to that of team work, many a baseball player and fan has alluded to the lessons of the great American pastime.
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is a book that takes this idea and molds it into a delicately woven story. Henry Skrimshander is a star player who has been trained by his mentor, and fellow Westish baseball player, Mike Schwartz. Together, they turn the losing Westish team into a force to be reckoned with while they each fight their own battles of love and loss. Guert Affenlight, the school’s president, works to rekindle his precarious relationship with his daughter, Pella, who comes to Westish to escape a failed marriage. Soon, his relationship with Henry’s roommate, Owen, threatens not only his position but the beliefs about love upon which his own life has been built.
Plot: Throughout the story, Harbach weaves the lives of these characters without making their relationships seem too predetermined. When they interact in unlikely ways, the activity seems organic rather than contrived to move the story forward. The book got off to a slow start and it wasn’t until about 100 pages in that I really started to enjoy the story. Once it did get going, though, it was certainly worth it. Harbach relies on baseball not as a crutch, but as a theme around which the characters can grow and a common activity that creates a plausible reason for the characters to interact.
Characterization: Every character in this book is well-developed and speaks with a clear, distinct voice. The emotional struggles that they endure are clearly defined, their pasts are revealed without spending too much time flashing back, and the ways in which they interact seem appropriate for their personalities. At no point was I puzzled as to why a character acts a certain way.
Writing: Harbach’s style is fluid and pleasant to read, but I have to admit that there were a few images that I was not too keen on. For example, he describes Schwartz’s nether regions as looking like a snail when he is soaking in the hot tub. While I understand that surprising similes are important in keeping writing fresh and avoiding the clichés that can all too easily accumulate, I can’t help but wonder if there is a more… dignified way to set the scene.
Larger Issues: Harbach dances around many issues without forwardly considering them, which allows the book to consider important themes without coming off as preachy. Forgiveness, self-discovery, personal responsibility, love, loss, determination, and so much more are discussed within this book. Although is speaks to baseball, and I found the sections about the games a bit boring, it is a book that is about far more than the sport.
Although I don’t think this is the best book of the year, I did thoroughly enjoy the story and think it is incredibly well-written. I will definitely be looking out for more from Harbach in the future.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.