I wish I could like all book club selections as much as I liked this one, but then there wouldn’t be much debate, would there? I guess the debate is good and I’m wondering who the dissenters in our numbers will be. As a note, I’m changing up my format for book reviews. Let me know if you like this better or if I should go back to my old style.
Chaos theory says that a butterfly beating its wings can cause the end of the world. One errant throw by Westish College shortstop Henry Skrimshander changes the live of five people by the end of the season. Missing the throw and breaking his streak of error-less games gets into Henry’s head and won’t come out. Westish College President Guert Affenlight has to face being a father again and falling in love with a much younger man. Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, is escaping an unhappy marriage by coming home to her father and pursuing the education she skipped out on before. Owen Dunne, is injured by Henry’s errant throw and finds comfort from someone he didn’t expect. Mike Schwartz, Westish catcher and captain, can’t understand why his tutee Henry can’t throw and why Pella Affenlight is so irresistible. As their lives crash and intermingle during baseball season, the ripple effects of one mistake overwhelm the reader.
Now for the spoiler’s summary. If you haven’t been here before, I like to discuss endings. Pella meets Mike soon after arriving at Westish and the two start dating. She takes a job in the kitchens to ear her own money and finally starts to feel in charge of her own life. Schwartz starts to realize he’s given himself up completely to Henry’s training and is becoming resentful. He starts keeping things from Henry, his relationship with Pella included. Meanwhile, Owen and President Affenlight embark on a strange and dangerous love affair. Owen feels like a plaything to Guert and the two take a small vacation together on the eve of the division championships. At the championship game, Henry decides to quit the team and walks off of the field mid-game. His depression continues for a few days and when he doesn’t make the bus for the play-offs, Mike sends Pella to fetch him and send Henry to follow in a car. When Pella gets to his room, Henry refuses to go and the two sleep together, ruining Pella’s relationship with Schwartz and embarking on a relationship with Henry. On the eve of the national championships (always on the eves, huh?), the dean of Westish tells Guert that he’ll be investigated for a relationship with a student. He gives Henry his plane ticket to the game and dies in his apartment that evening.
There is so much to talk about with this book. I think it will make for a great discussion at our book club meeting. I don’t really like to rehash plot so much, but if you’re going to spoil the ending for yourself and read the paragraph above, You’ll need to know these details for my discussion here and in my book club reflection. This book is so well written and the audiobook was done beautifully. I was concerned that this would be a ‘boy book’ that I wouldn’t like and that my female-heavy book club would not get into. I was surprised to find that though the book focuses on baseball, the technicalities of the sport were minimal and Henry’s path to become an athlete was a lot more universal. After the initial bad throw, baseball really becomes a background to the characters’ lives.
I loved the unique names in Harbach’s story. Guert and Pella were a little out there, but almost crazy last names like Starblind, Arsh, Skrimshander, and Affenlight were so realistic it made me smile. I liked how complicated of a character Mike Schwartz was. He had some of the jock stereotypes about him but at the same time, he was very driven to achieve highly for himself and not rely on his physical abilities and had the brain power to go places. Maybe not the places he wanted to go (Yale, Harvard), but places. On the other hand, I felt that Henry was a very flat character for a lot of the book. He didn’t have much of a personality until the last quarter of the book and I would liken him to a robot because he did what everyone else asked of him.
My favorite character has to be Owen Dunne. He was so quirky that I fell in love with him early on. Henry has pegged him as such a hippie-brain that when he tries out for baseball, Henry’s in complete shock. Instead of being a stereotypical athlete like Schwartz, he reads in the dugouts and takes the coach’s comments seriously when he’s yelled at. I could picture it so perfectly and it was all so believable. Harbach really created a three-dimensional character with Owen.
Even though I loved and was very invested in all of the characters, I couldn’t find one that I really related to. Pella, as the only woman, was the most relatable, but her decisions seemed rash and hurried to me and I couldn’t sympathize with her ruined marriage or depression. I think I felt a level of camaraderie with most of the characters because of the college setting. I went to a small private liberal arts school (though not in Wisconsin) so I could understand the underfunded sports, feeling of knowing everyone in town, and seeing the president at a sporting event. Part of what drew me in at the beginning was the school and how much it reminded me of my alma mater.
My favorite part of the book would have to be when Owen and Mike are looking for Henry after he walks away from the game. I loved that they didn’t find him and that instead they find a teammate and Henry’s sister and that all the quirks of Owen and Mike (cleanliness and bossiness respectively) show while they’re looking through the bar for Henry. I thought it was very believable and I could see it happening in a small college town.
The part of the book that really angered me was when Henry was living in Pella’s house. They decided to be together on such short notice, without having really talked to each other before they had sex and knowing that it would hurt Mike. I understand that some things can be helped, but it seemed obvious to me that Pella knew it was a mistake yet she let Henry stay on. And then after Henry’s concussion, it was as if that had never happened. I was really frustrated with the characters.
If I’d written the book, I think the only thing I’d do differently is to write in some more female characters. I guess this isn’t surprising as a woman criticizing a male writer, but I thought he wrote Pella pretty well and could have done another female lead with equal ability.
I loved this book. It’s a great book for college students through adults and will appeal to men and women. I give it a full 5 out of 5 stars.
This book fulfilled ‘Wisconsin’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.
Until next time, write on.
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