Book Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

A good baseball game can keep us on the edge of our seats. So can a good love story. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding has both, along with a cast of well-drawn, fascinating characters. Together, these elements combine to keep readers eagerly turning the pages of this beautifully crafted bestselling first novel.

Henry Skrimshander is a quiet kid from a no-name South Dakota town who has been unobtrusively developing into a supremely talented shortstop. One summer, while playing in an amateur league tournament, he catches the eye of Mike Schwartz, the catcher from an opposing team, who is also the captain of the baseball team at Westish College in Wisconsin. Mike sees Henry’s talent and orchestrates his admission into Westish. There, Henry’s life becomes intertwined with the lives of Mike and three other characters in a compelling portrayal of the joy and heartbreak common to both love and baseball.

There’s Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay, mixed-race roommate, who was the last person Henry expected to show up at baseball practice. There’s Guert Affenlight, a distinguished Melville scholar and president of the college, whose crush on Owen has him acting like a love struck teenager. There’s Pella, Guert’s somewhat estranged adult daughter, who flees to Westish to escape a bad marriage and finds new love with Mike. And there’s Mike, whose jock persona and fierce devotion to the team belie hidden complexities and insecurities.

The story plays out against the backdrop of Henry’s first season as a Westish Harpooner. Mike puts him through a regimen of grueling pre-season workouts to strengthen and bulk him up, and by the time the season opens, he has been transformed into a well-oiled machine, turning in one perfect performance after another. Soon the scouts start showing up, and Henry’s future in the major leagues is all but sealed, until something happens that shakes his confidence so severely that it threatens to derail everything. In the meantime, Guert giddily follows Owen’s charms down a dangerous path.

Pella determinedly forges a new life for herself, enrolling at Westish and taking a grunt job at the cafeteria. Her relationship with Mike grows, though hampered by a thorn of jealousy over Mike’s single-minded devotion to Henry’s development as a ballplayer. Mike inspires the team by day and works on his thesis by night, nursing his deteriorating knees and wondering about his future, after receiving rejection letters from every law school to which he’s applied.

Harbach takes readers on an unforgettable journey in this home run of a book. You don’t have to like baseball, or even know anything about it, to become invested in the characters or the story. Harbach took ten years to write the book, working temp jobs, sometimes with barely $100 in his bank account, so that he could finish it. After that, he endured numerous rejections from publishers before it finally took off and was purchased by Little, Brown, and Co. for a hefty sum and became an instant New York Times bestseller. The Art of Fielding is not your average light summer read. It’s a superbly written, emotionally gripping, sometimes breathtaking tale that you won’t soon forget.

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