The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: US college campus-based story of friendship and ambition with a baseball centre. You certainly don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this, but a little appreciation of the sport will undoubtedly help.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 450 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-0007374441

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Long listed for the Guardian First Book Award 2012

The Art of Fielding is basically a US-style campus novel featuring baseball. There are similarities in style between this and many of John Irving's works, with baseball substituting for Irving's wrestling focus. This, to the UK-reader, raises the first potential barrier as we are, as a rule, largely ignorant of the US fixation with the intricacies of baseball. Certainly you don't need an in depth knowledge to appreciate this story - it is really a story of friendship, ambition and the sporting dreams of youth - but despite a loose understanding of the sport I felt that I would have benefitted from more knowledge particularly towards the end when there is a climactic baseball match. You kind of get the point, but I certainly felt that I was missing out on a little of the tension, in much the same way I'd expect a US reader to be perplexed if the story had been based on say, cricket. It's a minor flaw though and it would be a shame if potential readers dismissed it for this reason.

For me, a more serious issue was that after a strong start - as a young Henry Skrimshander, a baseball fielding prodigy in the Roy of the Rovers manner (to horribly mix sports) is spotted by college über-jock Mike Schwartz and encouraged to enroll at the preppy but academically minor Westish College - the middle of the book loses its way a little and kind of drifts along for a while, before things rush to a slightly unsatisfying and unbelievable ending.

Once arrived at Westish, Henry is roomed with gay, fellow teammate (although he appears to do little to warrant his place on the team preferring to read on the bench), Owen. Also thrown into the main story are a charismatic College Principle, the 60-something year old Guert Affenlight and his errant daughter who just happens to return to her father having fled a depression inducing marriage to find that her father appears to be falling in love again, although that strand of the story does rather stretch belief.

The characters are thinly drawn and perhaps even a little cliché. After 500 pages of so of a novel, I would expect to have more understanding of the motives and drivers of the characters that I had here. It's not a 'great novel' in the manner of say the campus-featuring Donna Tartt's The Secret History and is not even as complex as the early John Irvings that it so put me in mind of. But it's undemanding and enjoyable for all that.

When Henry's impressive run of zero errors comes to an end in a freak accident, his struggle to regain his confidence and overcome doubts that he never had before, together with the relationships between Henry and his teammates - particularly the influential Schwartz - are interesting and largely entertaining. The passages devoted to the Affenlights (father and daughter) never really convinced me though. Affenlight snr's affair is somewhat difficult to believe and once free of her marriage, the formerly depressed Affenlight jnr, Pella, appears to show an almost complete recovery in no time at all and becomes something of a rock for the students.

As an undemanding read, it has plenty going for it if you don't look too deeply into its flaws though.

Although not one of his earlier college kid-based novels, if you enjoyed this style of writing then I have no doubt you'd enjoy Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.

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