Summary: The Art of Fielding is about five characters–Henry, Schwartz, Owen, Affenlight, and Pella–and how their lives and interactions dance in a tangled web together. The story focuses on Henry’s path as a shortstop who gets recruited by Mike Schwartz to Westish College in Michigan. After three years of practice and extreme training under the heavy influence of Schwartz, Henry becomes a star on the field. His dreams skyrocket until one bad throw rattles all five intertwined lives and sends Henry into a downward spiral out of the spotlight.
Review: First, I’d like to emphasize that while this book has lots of baseball and seems to be based around it–a bonus for me because I love baseball and my team is having a horrible season–it is a character-driven novel and anyone can read it without losing anything from the baseball parts. Harbach describes the game very eloquently, one of the many aspects of this books that I enjoyed, but he also writes five very complete, dimensional characters who envelope the reader in their lives and affairs.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the novel. Harbach builds Henry up into a hero-like character, young and fresh with potential, hope, and enthusiasm for baseball. I was inclined to adore Henry from the beginning. Henry’s fall from grace is heart-breaking and despite some of his more questionable actions, I couldn’t help but still root for him the entire book. I also enjoyed Pella’s character, a strong young woman trying to reclaim the youth she left behind when she dropped out of high school, got married, and moved to San Francisco. Her anti-rebellion back into college and into her father’s house makes for a refreshing character who is desperate to just be a normal college kid. As a character story, it was well-done. Each character has their strengths and flaws, deep personalities that make them all distinct and wonderful to read about.
Now let’s talk about what I didn’t like: pretty much the entire second half of the story. The middle felt long and drawn-out. Some of the characters side-stepped their carefully-constructed personalities in very uncharacteristic ways. There were a good 100 or so pages that simply could have been omitted. I almost lost my interest which is unfortunate because I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. While the characters remained relatively strong, I lost interest in the story. Everything got very messy very quickly and there was no relief for the reader past the half-way point, no hope to cling on to and this is too long of a book to be left stranded like that.
The other thing I didn’t like was the ending. I absolutely hatted the ending. It felt cheap and I finished the book feeling like I had been gypped. After investing many hours into reading a long, drawn-out book, the end felt like a cop-out. Overall, I was a little disappointed by this book. I wanted to like it so badly and 200 pages in, I would have given it 5 stars in a heartbeat. The ending really left a bad taste in my mouth. I will explain more why past the spoiler barrier so continue at your own risk.
This part of the review contains spoilers because it’s about a couple events at the end of the book that I did not enjoy. I can guarantee that being privy to these details will lessen your experience while reading the book and encourage you to only continue reading if you have read the book or seriously do not care or intend to read the book. You have been given fair warning.
Killing Affenlight was cheap. He was about to face a very important dilemma, one in which I felt all the growing he had done as a character throughout the book would have been useful for. It felt like a cop-out to fix both the instability of his relationship with Owen and his ongoing tension with Pella in the easiest and least creative way possible. Of course Schwartz had to tell Owen right before he was up to bat so that Henry had to step in and save the day. Affenlight was used for a practical, lazy way to end the novel and it wasn’t saddening to me in the least. After spending so much effort building him up as a character, he should have been given the chance to face his problem and decide something that would ultimately redefine him. Killing him felt like a convenient means to a mess that the character had been built upon.
To further rub in this lazy plot device, Pella decides something shocking and literally insane. She recruits Mike, Henry, and Owen to help dig up her father’s body and dump it in the lake because she believes that’s what he would have wanted. The three guys idiotically oblige, which seems more a sign of enabling craziness than friendship, and the book goes so far as to describe them unceremoniously taking Affenlight out of his casket and dumping him inside a bag with metal bars into the lake. I was disgusted. I couldn’t believe that these four college-aged kids would actually go along with this act. No daughter, even with all of Pella’s interesting quirks, would bare to take their father out of his casket. I was thoroughly outraged by this conclusion to Affenlight’s death.
Lastly, Henry’s decision to return to Westish really bothered me. I understand it from an academic standpoint, but that wasn’t his reason. Rather, it seemed his reason was to remain under Schwartz’s tyrannical excuse for friendship. Why else would he choose to play for a college baseball team filled with a bunch of newbies and give up a contract with the minor leagues? It seemed silly, especially since it seemed to me that his game was thrown off because of his reliance upon Schwartz and Schwartz’s quick abandonment after the incident with Owen. It was an unsatisfying ending for me to say the least.