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Review: ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach

Review: ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach post image

When I was walking around Book Expo America on the first day this year, a publicist with Little Brown got my attention and asked if I wanted a copy of The Art of Fielding, a book she said they were heavily promoting at the show. I asked what it was about, and when she replied “Baseball,” I must have made some sort of face because she immediately added something to the effect of, “But it’s not really about baseball!”

When I responded that I actually like baseball, she laugh and told me then it was actually about baseball if I wanted it to be. Oh, marketing.

The Art of Fielding takes place at Westish College, a small school on the shores of Lake Michigan. Henry Skrimshander is the baseball team’s star shortstop, on his way to baseball stardom. But when one throw goes awry, Henry’s future is threatened by overwhelming self-doubt. The throw also upends four other lives — Owen, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate; Guert, the college president; Mike, Henry’s best friend and the team captain; and Pella, Gert’s recently-returned daughter. The Art of Fielding follows these five characters through the baseball season as the year counts down.

I loved the way author Chad Harbaugh was able to write about so many different kinds of things. The Art of Fielding is not a short book — my ARC comes in at more than 500 pages — but Harbaugh uses that length to explore so many themes and ideas… life at a small college, the life of a sports team, what it’s like to grow up and try to find a career, finding yourself, moving back home, illicit affairs, confused sexuality, natural talent versus practiced excellence, the pursuit of perfection… the list could really go on. The point is, Harbaugh hits all of these notes almost perfectly.

My one critique about the book was that I didn’t feel like the five main characters developed at the same pace. Owen, in particular, felt more like a plot point rather than a real character with ambitions and complications for much of the book. And, interestingly, Henry also felt one-dimensional for a lot of the story because so much of it focused on his fall from grace and the responses of the people around him.

After finishing the book and thinking on it for awhile, I think what the publicist said is actually true — The Art of Fielding is about baseball, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Harbaugh uses baseball as a way to explore teamwork, family, perfection, ambition, commitment, and growing up in a book that offers as much love to Herman Melville as it does to a well-played line drive. I don’t think you have to love baseball in order to enjoy this book, but I do think you need to have an appreciation for some of these themes in order for the book to hit most effectively.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Care October 24, 2011, 7:08 am

    I think I would like this one. I’ve already rec’d it to my friend who wants to be a baseball manager.

    • Kim October 25, 2011, 7:01 am

      Yeah, I think you would too. I thought it was great.

  • Greg Zimmerman October 24, 2011, 7:27 am

    Hey – great review! Totally agree that you don’t have to like baseball to like the book, but if you do, there’s a good chance this novel could quickly reach “instant classic” status.

    Regarding Owen, he is rather a quirky character – but it seems to me like, other than Schwartz, he was one of the characters that developed the most the quickest. We get that little story about his boyfriend Jason and then how he wants to buy Henry clothes. Sure, without Owen, there’d be more novel – but he really is the glue that holds both parts (relationship with Guert, Henry’s baseball trials and erros) together – so I thought he was much more than just a plot point. He was easily my favorite character. Just my 2 cents…

    • Kim October 25, 2011, 7:03 am

      See, I guess that’s why I thought he felt more like a plot device than a character — because he’s a piece that holds the two stories together. After the initial stuff about his boyfriend and Henry, I didn’t feel like he grew or moved forward much. But, that could be because I was more into Schwartz and Pella and wasn’t reading those parts as carefully either.

  • Stephanie October 24, 2011, 8:01 am

    I have been avoiding this one because I have no interest in baseball. None.

    • Kim October 25, 2011, 7:04 am

      It’s hard to say whether this is a book someone who doesn’t care about sports would appreciate as much. I don’t think you have to like baseball, necessarily, but appreciation for sports seems like it would help.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) October 24, 2011, 1:16 pm

    A friend of mine read this and really liked it. I like sports, so I imagine I’ll want this one to be about baseball.

    • Kim October 25, 2011, 7:05 am

      The baseball in the book is really well-written — I think it captures what a good game can be and what the different moving parts mean without being too technical.

  • Jenny October 24, 2011, 6:18 pm

    I’m very much on the fence about this book. Everyone who tells me about it says it’s a story that uses a baseball setting to explore human themes, which sounds GREAT except for the baseball setting part. I’m just afraid that my active dislike of baseball would keep me from engaging.

    • Kim October 25, 2011, 7:05 am

      It might. Like I said, I don’t think you have to like baseball necessarily, but the idea of sports and competition, of growth over a season — I think that has to be something you appreciate for the book to be at its best. Maybe grab it from the library and see what you think?

  • Steph October 27, 2011, 12:52 pm

    I’m not really into any kind of sport, but I think my favorite sport is baseball, simply because I played softball as a kid so it’s one of the few sports where I actually know all the rules and can figure out what’s going on! That said, I have no interest at all in reading a book about baseball, and whenever I’ve seen this book talked about, I’ve just dismissed it as being such a “guy” book.

    I don’t know, it’s like how EVERYONE (including you!) says that Friday Night Lights is such a great show and that it isn’t really about football… but I will say that the first three episodes of it still seem to feature more football than I would like (which is to say, I would have a much easier time watching the show if it were not about football at all!)…

    • Kim October 30, 2011, 12:51 pm

      There are a lot of male characters in this book — four of the five main ones, plus the whole baseball team and that sort of thing. And I do think the idea of masculinity comes up in many of the conversations, but I didn’t think it was a “guy” book the way I think of some books as “girl” books. I found a lot to love in this one, regardless of gender.

      More importantly, give FNL a few more episodes to find its footing. There is, I think, more football in the first season than in some of the other seasons, but it does begin to take less prominence. I think the show is amazing, but it’s hard for me to articulate the football/non-footballness of it sometimes 🙂