A small American college.
Five very different lives. One terrible mistake.
At Westish College, baseball star Henry Skimshander seems destined for the big leagues until a routine throw goes disastrously off course. His error will upend the fates of five people.
Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to climactic final game, all five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties and secrets.
Title: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Published: 2011 by Fourth Estate
Time it took me to read: July 15 – August 22
When I just finished reading the Fault in Our Stars, I wrote in the review that I felt like running into the street, shoving the book in people’s faces and scream “READ IT!!” It’s not often that I’m that enthusiastic about a book. I’ve only felt like that a couple of times before; with The Fault in Our Starts, with Looking for Alaska (both by John Green), with The Help by Katheryn Stockett and now I have this feeling with The Art of Fielding. Times 100.
The Art of Fielding tells the story of the lives of five people. Central in this is Henry Skrimshander, a young but very promising baseball player. He never thought he would have a chance in baseball until Mike Schwartz discovers him at a high school game and creates a place for him as Westish College. There he is intensively trained by Mike, and he gets better and better. For two and a half years he plays every game without error, until he is nearly tied with baseball legend, his idol and author of Henry’s favourite book (The art of fielding) Aparicio Rodriguez for most games played without error.
Henry is on the top of the world until one game when things go horribly wrong and his friend, teammate and roommate Owen gets hurt. After that, Henry starts to doubt himself and he seems to have lost ‘it’. No amount of people telling him to ‘just relax’ and to ‘get out of your heard’ will help him get back to where he was.
Meanwhile Pella Affenlight, the daughter of the College’s president Guert Affenlight, has decided to stay with her father after leaving her husband of four years. Pella got married young and is living a life that she never had envisioned. After a period of being severely depressed, she is able to get away from her controlling and jealous husband, taking only her toothbrush and a bikini. At Westish, Pella finds a new kind of peace. She starts swimming again, enrolls in a few classes and gets a job at the college’s kitchen. Helping her regain some of herself is Mike Schwartz, Henry’s friend and teammate, and they develop a special relationship.
And lastly there’s president Affenlight, Pella’s father. A highly respected scholar who suddenly is discovering things about himself that might put everything he has worked for in danger.
Okay so first things first. Why is this book so amazingly beautiful? I think what made it really exceptional for me was the fact that it’s not just another novel. It’s just about people living their lives. It’s very realistic in that aspect. I mean, if you would have told me that the events have actually happened, I would believe you in a second. There’s no ‘big challenge’ or quest or something to overcome so that a hero can save the day. And to be honest, it is a bit of a relief after having read so many Young Adult books with plots like that to read a book that’s just about regular people.
It’s quite a long book (605 pages in the paperback edition) and from what I’ve seen in the Goodreads reviews on this book is that a lot of people thought it was boring and too long. And I both do and don’t understand. I, personally, could probably have read about these characters forever. But I guess I understand that if this is not really your thing it can come across as a bit long. But it is most definitely not boring. True, there are no fights or criminals or scenes that make your heart race because of all the action, but it is about ‘real’ people and their problems and in my opinion Harbach did an excellent job of keeping the readers glued to the pages. You start caring for the characters, wanting to help them and scream at them and hug them and tell them that it’ll be all okay. You get invested. Or at least I did. A lot.
Another thing that really made The Art of Fielding such a great read is the way it is written. At the risk of sounding obnoxious, I think that Harback aimed for readers who are people who could have gone to Westish themselves. Young, old, male, female that doesn’t matter but most of all intelligent. It doesn’t bother me personally but I read a couple of times that people think that Harback overdid it in that respect, trying to sound too smart. Like I said, I didn’t notice that while reading. I very much enjoyed the reverences to Melville, Irving and others. Also, I love any book where I have to stop reading to look up words in the dictionary (debilitatingly, rectitude, multiplicitous)
Sometimes a passage would draw my attention and I had to read it 3 times because it was phrased so beautifully. For example:
Pella’s oral history professor, the preposterously chic, thoroughly un-Wisconsiny Judy Eglantine, dined alone in one corner, dressed in narrow black, an open book before her. A feathery lime-green boa flopped over the opposite chair in place of a companion. Pella caught her eye and waved shyly as David pulled back her chair with his usual wooden courtesy. Professor Eglantine smiled. (p. 336)
It just drips off the page how much Pella admires her professor. I can just see her sitting there, dining alone but not lonely. Being confident enough to take herself out to dinner in a fancy restaurant, needing nothing other than a good book and a lime-green feathery boa to keep her company. I would admire her, too.
What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn’t know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them – you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words. (p. 496)
When I read that last passage, it made me a little teary-eyed. It is thought by Henry at the hight of his depression, when he barely talks and doesn’t eat at all. Oh I don’t know, you just need to read it, okay?
Of course the successfulness of a book stands and falls with its characters. That’s true for any book but even more so for this one. But I think that every single one of the key characters have certain traits that make them interesting to read about. And what’s the most beautiful about this book is that every reader can relate best to different characters. I, for example, related very strongly to Pella because her character is similar to mine and I could place myself in her shoes very easily. I related to her even more when she became involved with Mike, because he is the exact type of man that I would find attractive. But it is very possible that people identify more with Mike himself or Henry, the athletic prodigy or Guert, the intellectual with an identity crisis or Owen, the confident one with brains and beauty and knowledge that goes beyond. There’s something in there for everyone.
I said before that this is not an ordinary book. The characters don’t encounter some obstacle that they overcome and then they get their happily ever after. It’s not like that. Like in real life, they struggle. And sometimes it gets (much) worse before it gets better. And sometimes you can’t do it alone, even though you don’t want to ask for help. The intelligent law student doesn’t automatically get accepted into Yale or Harvard because that’s not how it works, Henry doesn’t suddenly overcome his self-doubt in baseball and everything gets all better. The thing that Harbach is writing about is life. Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we want it to and we have to deal with that. And when that happens we have to figure out who we are without the thing that makes me me? Who am I without academics or my talent or my straight sexual identity. I think that that’s one of the central issues in this book and I think that that is a large part of what makes it interesting. How do we cope when we lose our identity?
In conclusion, I rate this book a 5 out of 5. The New York Times called it the book of the year and I agree. It is the best book that I have read in a long while. I urge everyone to pick up a copy and give it a go, see what you think. I doubt that you will be disappointed.
My Favourite Quotes from The Art of Fielding
“The other reason, of course, is that I’m a staunch monogamist. In practice, if not in theory. I can’t help it. Do I acknowledge the oppressive, regressive nature of sexual exclusivity? Yes. Do I want that exclusivity very badly for myself? Also yes. There’s probably some way in which that’s not a paradox. Maybe I believe in love. Maybe I just badly crave my mother’s approval.” (p. 25)
“They all seemed to Henry to have come from the same close-knit high school, or at least to have attended some crucial orientation session he’d missed.” (p. 27)
“Every day is a war. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” (p. 56)
“Since long before Schwartz’s time, it had been rumoured that Coach Cox had a couple of million dollars socked away somewhere. “He fits the profile” Tennant used to say. “Never wears anything but free WAD gear. Eats all his meals at McDonald’s. Drives a car with three hundred thousand miles on it. I’m telling you, the guy’s loaded.”” (p. 274)
“She’s caught herself thinking that spending four years at Westish might not be the worst thing in the world. But she could also sense how tenuous this progress was, how easy it would be to slow down and shut down and wind up back where she started, in bed all day but unable to sleep, terrified by the day and doubly terrified by the night, never picking up the phone, comforted only by the thought of never needing comfort again.” (p. 308)
“David thrived on these arguments, his manner growing calmer and saner by the second as Pella tipped toward madness. Except of course that he was the mad one.” (p. 343)
“There were no whys in a persons’ life, and very few hows. In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forbearance, infinite patience. Solomon and Lincoln: This too shall pass. Damn right it will. Or Chekhov: Nothing passes. Equally true.” (p.509)