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.
The Art of Fielding is in many ways an old-fashioned, feel-good kind of novel, and consequently, the plot's trajectory is inevitable. Harbach expertly walks the fine line of creating a story that satisfies readers' expectations without allowing it to become overly predictable. Some of the narrative proceeds as one would anticipate, but there are enough variations and plot twists to keep it surprisingly fresh. The book is charming, warm, and sweet without becoming cloying.
One of the author's greatest strengths is his ability to create three-dimensional characters that generate empathy in his readers. Not only does one gain a fully fleshed-out mental picture of team captain Mike Schwartz, for example, but one gets to know him, like him, and really understand his struggle to find his place in the world. College president Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella are equally well-drawn, complex characters. I finished the book feeling like these three were real people that I knew as friends and was sorry to leave behind. Slightly less developed are the book's other two main characters, and, unfortunately, minor characters aren't developed at all - they're mostly stereotypical college boys.
Readers should be aware that the book touches on subjects that some may consider controversial. One of the older college employees has an affair with a student, and the sexual orientation of the characters is a major theme throughout. Both heterosexual and homosexual encounters are detailed, and while explicit, the sex scenes are handled tastefully; they're more romantic than erotic. I suspect that most will find the author's treatment of these themes inoffensive, but those who are more conservative may wish to give this novel a pass.
It will be interesting to see what kind of audience The Art of Fielding attracts. I have many male friends who are eager to read the book because they think it's about baseball, and I suspect most of them will be disappointed from that standpoint. While baseball certainly plays an important role here, the novel is character-driven, which generally appeals more to female readers. However female readers may not pick it up because of its sports-themed title, and that would also be a mistake. This is an ideal book club selection, as it's an easy, quick read, the characters are appealing, and there's much discussion that can come from its themes.
This review was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the May 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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