The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

10996342This may sound like a strange comparison, but the brilliance of this book–and the reasons that I loved it so much–reminded me of Adam Silvera’s History is All You Left Me. Though entirely different, both novels are perfectly structured: flawless beauties crafted with a finesse that shimmers. But both were so compelling to me because, despite their perfect construction, they were unequivocally messy.

The Art of Fielding takes place at a small college on the edge of Lake Michigan. When freshmen baseball Henry Skrimshander arrives on campus, his presence shakes up many lives: his best friend and the captain of the baseball team, his roommate, the college president, and the president’s daughter. The novel, told in five POVs (beautifully executed!), meanders through Henry’s college years–the best and the worst of them.

The plot was not especially twisty, or action packed, or even exceptionally original. But the ways in which the characters interacted with each other, their internal and external struggles, their emotional attachments, their mistakes and redemptions–these things were all messy and nuanced and unpredictable. The characters continually messed up. They were constantly surprised by their own actions. This made the novel surprising, as well.

My enjoyment and admiration of books most often depends on how deeply I feel for the characters. How deeply I feel for the characters depends on how deeply, sharply, and truly they are drawn. In my opinion, good characters–true characters, the ones that seem to breathe on the page–are the ones that surprise even themselves, the ones that find themselves acting in ways they did not know they could act. This is the way life is: we think and feel and analyze and go about loving and working, raising children and making dinner, but when we get to the real heart of something, when we’re in the midst of the hardest bits, when the unpredictable or unthinkable occurs, we surprise ourselves.

The characters in The Art of Fielding, and their messy, imperfect, intertwined lives, were all beautifully, deeply drawn, and a joy to spend some hours with. I listened to the audio of this book, which was stellar, and, for the first time, I stayed up late in bed with my headphones in, listening to the last few hours of the book, because I had to know what happened. This is a book I can’t wait to reread.

A final note, but beware: The following paragraphs contains SPOILERS!

 

 

There is a scene, near the end of the book, where, in the middle of the most important baseball game of the season, the main characters discover someone has died. The scene is so perfectly and brilliantly crafted it took my breath away. I love baseball, and I was enthralled by the suspense of that game–these characters, whom I had come to love, had poured all of themselves into it; everything on the line. The writing was gorgeous, the play-by-play both emotionally and superficially suspenseful. I was holding my breath as Harbarch described each play and its aftermath. I desperately wanted the team to win. It was all I could think about.

Then the bullpen phone rings, and though I already knew the character was dead, though I knew what that phone call was going to reveal–it absolutely cut me. The death is announced, and the game absolutely, completely ceases to matter. The tension snaps and the game becomes frivolous, my investment in it completely dissolved. It’s brilliant writing, the way everything shifts in that moment, this crystalline realization–for both the reader and the characters–of what matters and what doesn’t, and why. I will never forget how I felt reading that scene. In my opinion, it’s a scene for the ages.

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