Book Review: The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding. Photo credit:
The Art of Fielding. Photo credit:

Once again, I’ve crafted a review to share with my Feature Writing students as they prepare to write a creative critical review of their own. Here are my thoughts on “The Art of Fielding” as promised.

The Art of Fielding: Book Review

It is rare for me to be at a loss for words, to be left with the inability to articulate why I was left feeling blasé about a piece of work that The New York Times Book Review called the Best Book of the Year for 2011. And, it is even more rare for me to be overly critical of a writer, especially one who spent ten years crafting his book to get it just the way he wanted it. In fact, for that I have only praise.

Yet, the overwhelming sentiment I was left with at the end of Chad Harbach’s novel “The Art of Fielding” was only one of disconnect and confusion. Disconnect because I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters and their actions, and confusion because I am left scratching my head and continue to have difficulty explaining why I was just left feeling blah about it.

As for the latter, there is no doubt Harbach can write. Some of his prose is melodic and lyrical and deeply emotive. His poetic sentences are captivating, and truthfully, my perception of the novel up until the halfway point was quite favorable. I was curious about the characters, but then, swiftly—as swiftly as a hitter can swing a bat at a 95-mile an hour fastball—he lost me. In baseball terms, it was a swing and a miss.

The shame of these sentiments about the way the plot unravels is that I’m a baseball girl. I worked in the sport on a professional level for a Major League Baseball team for 13 years. In other words: I wanted to like it. I want to like all things baseball.

The novel takes place at Westish College, a fictitious college in the mid-west, and centers around five main characters: Guert Affenlight, the president of the college; Pella Affenlight, his daughter who has returned from California to Westish to pursue her degree after a broken marriage; Henry Skrimshander, the Westish baseball team’s prodigal shortstop who is being courted by the big leagues; Owen Dunne, a member of the baseball team who is a scholar and is gay; and Mike Schwartz, the seeming glue of the baseball team and Henry’s mentor. These five characters’ lives become intertwined, and at the heart of it all are growing pains, psychological problems, love affairs, and a bit of scandal. Each one, in some regard, is “finding” himself or herself.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

It was. And then…

Sometimes novels are crafted so well that you don’t mind when the characters begin to unravel and do something off-course. Those types of things surprise us as readers. However, Harbach tosses us a few unlikely curve balls, but they are too predictable in an all-too-convenient way that leaves us feeling a bit cheated, like when Sammy Sosa got caught with a corked bat in 2003.

“The Art of Fielding” is 512 pages long. As previously mentioned, Harbach’s prose is pleasant to digest, and my confusion was never about how skilled a writer he is. Ultimately, the challenge for me to like the characters and to find something endearing or redeeming in them. This was at the crux of my disappointment. To be honest, I cared more about the characters page 250 than I did on page 512.

Harbach’s literary knowledge shines through in this book. Obviously a fan of “Moby Dick,” Harbach cleverly weaves President Affenlight’s love for the novel into the storytelling and plot of “The Art of Fielding.” The symbolism of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville leaves us wondering how it will play into the climax and resolution, and about three-quarters of the way through the story, we understand why it was an integral part of the story.

I can’t say that I was fully disappointed in this novel. It had its moments. It’s not a book for everyone, as the themes are deep and complex, but yet, I found the characters only so likeable as the plot unfolded. But maybe, just maybe, that was what Harbach intended for us to see: that they were flawed and damaged and clouded by who they are, their futures, and their own goals.

As you can see by my analysis, I’m still perplexed by it.

Did I like it or not like it?

The jury’s still out.

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738 words


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