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186 of 215 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It was good -- BUT...., November 1, 2011
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This review is from: The Art of Fielding: A Novel (Hardcover)
First thing I'll admit: I purchased this not so much because I was hankering to read a baseball-themed bromance about self-discovery in the dregs of a protein shake, but more because the dollar figure of writer Chad Harbach's advance was leaked to the press and legions of curious had to know if the writing warranted that giant $650,000 figure. As if any of us know what "warranted" looks like in this case, as if we had anything to compare that against. I just knew that was a lot of money, and if a first time novelist could command that dollar figure (in this era of declining advances and tightened publishing company purse strings) , I needed to find out what he was doing right.

I finished it in 3 sittings. Worth mentioning, because I slog through most books in a single evening so there's no petty internal struggle over "WHY" I'm picking the book back up and whether I'm GENUINELY compelled to turn the next page or whether I'm simply reading out of some rote sense of duty to complete the project I've begun.

With this book, that internal struggle was strong each time I hefted the book up onto my lap. Roommate would ask me, "Is it any good?" and I would say, "I'll wait until I'm done to answer that. I don't know yet." Which was my opinion up until the final pages. "I don't know yet." I was trying to separate my envy over the publicity and the giant advance check from my enjoyment of The Novel in its own right and finding that separation very difficult.

And, as many reviews I read prior to dead lifting the novel warned, this was not a plot-driven baseball story, this was a character-driven baseball story. And it's not a baseball story at all, not really, because there's not really all that much baseball actually played out on the pages. It's just that the characters do their unfolding in relative proximity to a baseball field, for the most part.

So, I'll quote the book jacket to give us our synopsis:

"At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big-league stardom. But when a routine throw goes distatrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's right against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affai. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process, they forge new bonds and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment -- to oneself and to others."

Got it?

Okay -- my official decision on whether or not the book "was any good."

Yes -- but.

Yes, The Novel was good in that the sentences were finely crafted, the prose obviously labored over with an eye and an ear to fluidity and clarity and philosophical repose -- but --- we had some "hollow character" issues. For instance: if we're expected to care whether the purported "protagonist" Henry lives or dies, Harbach needed to imbue him with a certain whiff of humanity or some menial degree of warmth or depth that was simply NOT THERE. Henry was, essentially, no more than the mitt into and out of which a baseball flies. SO, when we're expected to CARE about the person attached to the mitt: we don't. Which poses something of a problem when so many pages are dedicated to his mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical decline. Frankly, there's a scene where he wanders out into the lake to swim in a (naturally) weighted vest. It's a "workout," apparently -- I ended up hoping it was a suicide attempt. The character -- not so much a protagonist as a catalyst or a fulcrum or a prop -- was insufferably wooden.

Yes, The Novel was good in the LITERARY sense; Harbach wielded the classic literary references (Melville, Chekhov, you name it) like I wield a knife around frosting. With much slathering. Which, sure, serves to remind us that The Man behind The Novel is well-educated, well-read, and well-equipped to remind us of both -- but -- the trade-off was authenticity. Missing from between the lines of literary reference upon literary reference was any sense that these were really, actually, young 20-somethings doing the thinking, the speaking, the behaving. If we'd been told that these characters were 33 or 43 instead of 23, perhaps some of the crisis of identity they experience while strung-out on Schlitz (yes, Schlitz) and Vicodin might have felt more believable.

And -- yes, I'm going to go here -- there was this small matter of misogyny. Okay, okay, that's a strong term. Perhaps it was less a malicious intent to make women look useless and more of a uselessness for women in general that bleeds through. First, I have no illusions that this is a book about men. Written by a man, for men, starring men. There's nary a female that crosses the page (save for the token "love triangle girl") but -- when they do make an appearance, the only currency with which Harbach arms them is a sort of clumsy sexuality that plays out almost like caricature. Pella, the "Girl" in The Novel, manages to market herself to intellectually and spiritually confused man-boys as though the only language all college kids speak fluently involves condoms.

Finally (and I know this will sound terribly nit-picky), there was a certain quaint, classical, almost old-fashioned tic to the way Harbach writes that evoked, culturally, anyway, a mid-century sort of college town. Something out of the 1950's. So it felt in-congruent any time he'd work in an iPod or a text message reference. It was as though we were straddling generations, comfortably floating through a 1952 collegiate paradise of baseball and puppy love and all things clean and contemplative, and then the iPhone reference would pop up, or he'd invoke the "PowerBoost" protein shake and the illusion was shattered.

However -- when it gets down to it, if you ask me "was it any good?" I'd still end up saying, "Yes." Even though it wrapped up a little too neatly, the "happily ever after" felt a little too easy, and -- FERHEAVENSSAKE -- he actually went with the lame "sports movie" ending where the crestfallen player has the opportunity to take up his cross and save the team in the most spectacularly cheesy, eye-rollingly unrealistic climax EVER. I kept thinking to myself, "Tell me he doesn't go there. Tell me he doesn't go there. Tell me -- oh NO. He's doing it. He's having the little guy come in to save the day. Damn if he didn't watch Rudy too many times growing up......"

So there was that.

But the character of Mike Schwartz really should stand the test of literary time -- were I teaching a high school Lit class, I'd probably have them dissect the Schwartzy at length because he seemed like the least wooden, most believably human character in The Novel.

Would I buy this for family members for Christmas?

Hmmmmmmmmm. Only for the family member who are literature students, I think.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 20, 2012, 9:19:53 PM PDT
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I read the endless Vanity Fair article by his roommate (!) Assigned myself the task of discovering an arm's-length assessment to relieve me of the need to slog through the book. Voila! Your careful and caring review appeared. I am reminded of Pauline Kael, who spared me oh-so-many hours of movies that I would have slept through, by telling me things I never would have seen in the film even had I been awake.

Posted on Oct 17, 2012, 9:07:07 AM PDT
C. Roy says:
This was a killer review, I felt so similar while reading this book. Especially the dichotomy of the year the story was supposed to be taking place vs. the 50's feel to the storyline and characters. All very confusing at times. Nice review Heather.

Posted on Aug 26, 2013, 7:09:50 PM PDT
Christopher says:
Great review. Thank you. You nailed almost every one of my complaints about this book, and managed to do it without revealing any salient plot points. I couldn't find a way to do that without voicing several spoilers, so will let your very well written critique do the job for me!

Posted on Dec 12, 2014, 6:27:14 AM PST
Jake P says:
Great review Heather. Wish I would have read it before I wasted my money. lol

But your review was 10x more entertaining than this con-job of a book.
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