The Art of Fielding

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I may have a never-ending list of books I have to read for various lectures and seminars, but that doesn’t mean that the pull of the book shop is any less. On a “Christmas shopping” trip that mainly resulted in gifts for myself, I took advantage of Waterstones’ “buy one, get one half price” deal and bought The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. Then I took advantage of the four-hour train ride back from Exeter to read the latter.

I was ever-so-slightly apprehensive about buying Fielding, mainly because I know next to nothing about baseball, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter at all. All the information you need to know (not a lot – the plot, after all, doesn’t really centre around the ins and outs of the rules of the game) is seamlessly interwoven into the novel. Really, it’s almost enough just to know that Harbach’s protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, is good at what he does.

Skrimshander, his baseball team, and its turbulent season is central to the novel, for sure, but Harbach also introduces an almost impossibly wide spectrum of subplots dealing with illicit affairs, depression, the cult of the US sporting hero and the terrifying prospect of moving on from the tight-knit world of the fictional Wisconsin college in which the action is set – amongst others. Harbach follows the lives of five central characters, introducing along the way a broad cast of bright and memorable supporting characters: Skrimshander’s roommate, Owen, is one that particularly stands out.

At 512 pages, The Art of Fielding is something of an epic, but it’s quicker to read than you might imagine and I’d say it’s well worth a read. It’s long enough that it is nicely slow moving, with enough time and space to fully deal with the many, many interwoven plots and the lives of his characters. I found myself unusually attached to a lot of the characters: this is a book that could easily have been extended for another two hundred pages, and it almost begs a spin-off following one (or several) of the more minor characters. Novels involving small US college campuses are often my favourite kind, and with The Art of Fielding, Harbach doesn’t disappoint.

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