I finally finished The Art of Fielding. At 500+ pages, it's clearly on the longer side, but what a good book. It got a lot of buzz last year, but I hesitated to read it since it's about baseball and I'm not exactly a sport's love, so I stuck it on my wishlist and left it there until I saw my dad carrying it around. He loved it because it's all about "baseball and academia". So I gave it a shot, and to my surprise, it grabbed me pretty quickly.
It's not really even about baseball. It's most about talent and failure and how one gets past failures. It's about relationships between a variety of different people. It's about how five people's lives are woven together over the course of one baseball season at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Baseball serves as a mood, a setting and even feels oddly like a character.
The characters are fully dimensional. The book opens with Mike Schwartz, a catcher for the Westish Harpooners, who immediately spots the prescient talent of a young shortstop over the summer before his sophomore year. Mike works some magic to get Henry into Westish as a freshmen to play on the team, where he spends his first two seasons as an incredible player. The book skips over those two years and centers the action around what goes wrong in Henry's junior year and what happens from there.
The other two main characters are Guert Affinlight, the college's president, and his damaged daughter, Pella (named after Alexander the Great's birth place?). A final character, Owen, is Henry's gay roommate. He never gets his own point of view like the other protagonists, but he is a strong presence throughout the entire story.
Some people have compared the author to John Irving. I haven't read enough of Irving's books to comments on that, but the book has intensity and weight to it even when discussing a baseball game, which reminded me a bit of Irving. I gave it a 4 out of 5 stars because there were some moments that were a little too obvious, especially towards the end. You could definitely see what was coming for some characters. I admit that I get a little impatient with downward spirals because I'm not the kind of person who gets lost in depression. Overall, though, I liked the interactions between the various characters. I especially liked a scene when Henry's parents expressed concern over him having a gay roommate. After he gets off the phone with them, he thinks to himself that Owen is the perfect roommate since he keep the place very clean and is also usually out with his boyfriend, giving Henry lots of time alone. Something about that just made me laugh, but also I appreciated that Owen's sexuality was really a non-issue for the hyper-manly baseball players, although it does play a big role in the book.
I think the last third of the book slowed down a bit but in general, I'm really glad I finally read this. Harbach's debut was strong and touching. Even if you're not a sports person, it's definitely worth checking out.
Here's an except from the book. Apparently Harbach had a difficult time getting it published, which is the subject of an e-book written by a Vanity Fair writer. I'm curious to read this at some point.
Anyway, I started reading my next book, Pilgrim of the Sky by my friend, Natania Barron and I'm already on page 79. I'll probably have a review up early next week!