Dear London Book Club, I can’t be with you tonight, because I’m sitting in a departure lounge at Heathrow waiting to get on a plane to India. A bit of me thinks that, nervous as I am about the next ten days of work, I’d probably be a bit more nervous sitting with you discussing this month’s book. Because, fundamentally, I’m a little bit worried that you’re not going to like this book, and I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t like what I think might just be the best book I’ve read this year. We might have to have our first fight, you and I.
So, The Art of Fielding. To be honest, I find it hard to explain just what I loved about it so much. After I finished it I was a bit inclined to just wave my arms in the air and make gibbering noises about how it’s just so beautiful. It’s just so easy to love. A week or so later and the tendency to hyperbole has settled - but equally, I’m no longer a bit afraid that I’m going to wake up in the morning and feel like it stitched me up.
In some ways, it reminds me of The Corrections, another big all-American state of our lives novel heralded as a great book - and to which I’ve seen it compared (not least because Franzen’s endorsement is splashed all over the cover of my edition). But, while I raced through The Corrections (which I did want to like) at a rate of knots before ending up feeling underwhelmed and strung along, because it felt too obviously put together in a way that was meant to make me think it was Capital P-Profound but really made me think, ‘Well, that’s a miserable view of the world,’ I don’t feel like that about The Art of Fielding. Fundamentally, I think it just is too decent and too positive about humanity for me to find it corrupted in a hurry. I imagine that Chad Harbach is a much sunnier person and pleasanter companion through the world than Jonathan Franzen.
And the world he creates reflects that. Westish College is a lovely, little, liberal arts college with a hardworking, generally good natured baseball team, who have that good old amateur-heart-is-better-than-professional-thoroughness thing going on, and a college president who could probably have been played by Christopher Plummer if they could film it twenty-five years ago. All the characters mean well and want well, even if they occasionally screw it up, and they mostly want to fix things, even if they don’t really know how.
I’m terribly fond of Pella, as she tries to work it out, and of her relationships with her dad and with Mike. I’m terribly fond of Mike, though I sometimes want to shake him as he goes through the Ivy League application phase, because really, Mike, that is not the life you want, and it’s ok to not want that. And I love Henry - the natural. I feel like the portrait of a guy who can’t work out what’s going wrong with his sporting skill because he’s never had to think about it before rings so true (you only have to look at what happens when the likes of Ian Bell, or Rory McIlroy are scratching around for form, or how far Nadal and Djokovic have got into Roger Federer’s head because he can’t work out what’s not working any more). I just want to wrap him up in cotton wool.
So why did I like it so much- because I don’t think that really explains it? I still don’t know - but I think it’s probably more about me than it is about the book. Maybe that’s always the case with the books you end up loving. They smash into something in you and get their tiny little tentacles wrapped around your central nervous system or something. This one smashed into the bit of me that wants the world to be a sunny, snowy, gently undulating, rhythmically changing place full of generally decent people and an affection for books and sporting religions. I loved the ending - because it tapped into the bit of me that believes that heading off to the money and individual achievement that Henry is offered isn’t the solution to the problem, and that working it out with the community of people who love you and live with you might just be. It’s the bit of me that knows that while you can’t totally recapture the magic and paper over the cracks, you can use those old rhythms to soothe and rebuild, and make things a little bit richer - because now you know it’s magic.