Summary and book reviews of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding

A Novel

By Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2011,
    528 pages.
    Paperback: May 2012,
    544 pages.

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Book Summary

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 disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight 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 affair. 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.

Chapter 1

Schwartz didn't notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did - that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry's every move.

This was the second Sunday in August, just before Schwartz's sophomore year at Westish College, that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. He'd spent the summer in Chicago, his hometown, and his Legion team had just beaten a bunch of farmboys from South Dakota in the semifinals of a no-name tournament. The few dozen people in the stands clapped mildly as the last out was made. Schwartz, who'd been weak with heat cramps all day, tossed his catcher's mask aside and hazarded a few unsteady steps toward the dugout. Dizzy, he gave up and sank down to the dirt, let his huge ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Does male friendship always involve competition? In what ways? Can men ever be just friends? Are their relationships more competitive than those between women?


  2. After a long streak of errorless games, why does Henry lose his once-effortless throw? What has changed in Henry? Do you think this sort of crisis is unique to athletics? Could, say, a painter go through a similar crisis?


  3. Harbach never writes from Owen's point of view. In what ways did this affect your understanding of Owen's character? Of his feelings toward Guert? Is their relationship one-sided, or perfectly reciprocal?


  4. Mike devotes much of his time and energy to mentoring and helping Henry. Does he give Henry too much of his time and energy? Can someone give too ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

When we're children, many of us are raised to believe we can be anything we want when we grow up if we work hard enough. There comes a time in most of our lives though, when we realize we just don't have the talent to be a famous writer, professional basketball player, concert violinist or [insert your dream here]; and that maturing (or dose of reality!) often occurs near the end of one's college years. In The Art of Fielding, first-time author Chad Harbach explores this evolution through the lives of five characters, and his depiction of the process feels so dead-on that it will almost certainly resonate with a great many readers. Please note: This is not a book about baseball; it's about finding one's true self, about discovering what one is meant to do with one's life (which may or may not align with one's dreams), and about the adaptations that must be made when life's path doesn't lead where one hoped.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (1085 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom
Reading The Art of Fielding is like watching a hugely gifted young shortstop: you keep waiting for the errors, but there are no errors. First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom.

Author Blurb James Patterson
Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding is one of those rare novels - like Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving's The World According to Garp - that seems to appear out of nowhere and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well.

Publishers Weekly

Harbach manages incisive characterizations of his five main players, even as his narrative, overlong and prone to affectation, tests the reader's patience.

Library Journal

Harbach paints a humorous and resonant portrait of a small college community while effectively portraying the Wisconsin landscape and a lake that provides an almost mystical source of solace and renewal.

Bookpage

A debut swinging for the fences... You don't have to like baseball to savor Chad Harbach's sumptuous debut novel, a wise and tender story of love and friendship, ambition and the cruelty of dashed dreams, featuring an appealing cast of characters.... Harbach demonstrates an impressive gift for balancing his exploration of these fragile entanglements with an absorbing, well-plotted story, so we're rooting as hard for the small company of troubled souls as we are for the ragtag Westish nine.

Booklist

An immediately accessible narrative reminiscent of John Irving, Harbach... draws readers into the lives of his characters, plumbing their psyches with remarkable psychological acuity, and exploring the transformative effect that love and friendship can have on troubled souls. And, yes, it's a hell of a baseball story, too, no matter who wins.

USA Today

Harbach, in his first time at bat, has made the near-impossible act of writing a very good American novel feel almost effortless.

The Daily Beast

Large-hearted... Harbach writes about the Harpooners with touching intimacy (and an impressive knowledge of baseball)... expansive, thought-provoking and ambitious... This is a big book in every way... If The Art of Fielding begins as a baseball story, so it ends as one, too - poignantly, beautifully, and improbably.

The New Yorker

The dream of perfection deferred allows Harbach to tell a story about our national pastime that manages, as well, to be about our historical present - in other words, a story about fallibility.

The Wall Street Journal

[A] triumphant first novel... Like a great baseball game, the novel manages to feel traditional and contemporary all at once.

The New York Times

[The Art of Fielding] is not only a wonderful baseball novel - it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside The Natural by Bernard Malamud and The Southpaw by Mark Harris - but it's also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and the coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.

O Magazine

Astonishingly assured yet seemingly effortless... Sport is the metaphor here, but it is only that; [The Art of Fielding] is a wonderful tale of youth, ambition, love, and a little, unpredictable thing called life. In other words, it's a whole other ballpark.

Time

It's left a little hole in my life the way a really good book will, after making room in my days for reading it - which is also what a really good book will do.

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Baseball: An Early History

Though The Art of Fielding is not about baseball per se, there are still large segments of the book devoted to the game. It is used as a metaphor for the human condition and is the frame around which the story is built.

Baseball has been referred to as the "national pastime" of the United States since the mid-1800s, though it is difficult to trace the exact origins of the sport. There are written references to the game that go back to the 1700s - most famously in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1796) - although a French illustration dating from the 14th century depicts a similar ball and bat game. Most sources agree that baseball was imported to the U.S. by English and Irish immigrants as a game called "rounders" (also called "...

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