Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Club: The Awakening

New book club had its inaugural meeting last weekend.  No, we didn't read Kate Chopin's syllabus-haunter The Awakening.  But we came into being as a group; thus the title.

The book was The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, and the meeting was fabulous.  I've been in book clubs that were extremely literary and ones that were extremely not so.  This was perfect--we talked about the story, and how the author accomplished it.  Nobody hated it, but there was enough variation of opinion to be really interesting, and everyone else put together a lot of things I didn't notice, for a richer experience of the book.  Two big thumbs up!

It didn't hurt that this was a fabulous book.  Right here is that place where literary fiction becomes great.  The writing is understated, but absolutely masterful.  You don't really notice the writing, because it's seamless, but so much of what is done--so many allusions and hints--couldn't have been put together without careful and deliberate intent.

The story is simple, realistic (for the most part), and incredibly compelling.  Henry Scrimshander is a gifted high school baseball player without any real plans when he finds himself at Westish College, a small midwestern school where his talent can shine.  Baseball is the core of his life, and he is the core of the novel.  We also meet Owen ("I'll be your gay mulatto roommate") and Schwartz, Henry's upperclassman mentor; Guert Affenlight, the president of the college; his daughter, Pella, who would be a college senior if she hadn't married a guest lecturer at her high school.  Each of these characters is confused and flawed and loveable and trying so hard, and I enjoyed all of them immensely.

The weakest point, I think, is Owen.  In many ways he's an outsider; while he's vital to the story in so many ways, he's the only one who's never a point of view character, and whose experiences we never really share.  Owen is very much an object in the story--he's admired and worshiped, and he's often the calm center of everyone else's troubled confusion.  But he never quite feels real himself, and you're never quite sure how he really feels about anyone.  Owen is on a pedestal; the character who always knows the right thing to say, knows when to worry and when not to, keeps his cool in any situation is often fun to read about, but is rarely three dimensional.

It's one of those stories you can't really tell.  I guess you could say everyone is trying to find the meaning of life, but since they're in college, mostly they're just trying to figure out how to really live.  If they were typical college students, it might be passionately boring in the way that most of your late night dorm talks would be if you got to go back and peek in on the.  But they're not, and they're all struggling with very adult problems and fears.  It's true that I sometimes wanted to shake them, but they were forever trying to shake themselves, and I know what it feels like to know you're not thinking constructively, but to be unable to stop that thought process.

Anyway, I'm not doing a great job of selling you on the book.  I don't know if I can, especially since how the story unfolds is so important to my experience of it.  But: if you like baseball, this is a great book.  If you have ever wondered whether you'd ever make anything of yourself, this is a great book.  If you've ever learned something about yourself that shocked you, this is a great book.  If you like really good storytelling, this is a great book.  Seriously, this is just a great book.  You really should read it.


Aarti said...

I like that you said how the story unfolds is such a huge part of your experience of it, so it is hard for you to sell the book to people. I know exactly what you mean!

LibraryHungry said...

It's funny how rarely we read a book that we know so little about, isn't it? In some cases a plot synopsis would tell you almost nothing about the book, and in others it would give too much away. But when you don't know what will happen, you can't predict the arc of the story, and I find that to be such an odd experience. I even remember the first time I had it; the movie Gilda, with Rita Hayworth. Go figure.