I tend to enjoy novels that depict students in college or recent college graduates. So some of my favorite fiction that Ive read in the last ten years or so includes Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Claire Messud's The Emperors Children, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, and Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons. Needless to say, these novels differ greatly, but perhaps because t I read them in college or just after college or because I teach college students now, I have enjoyed them all.
I can now add to that list the two biggest literary novels of the fall: Chad Harbuch's The Art of Fielding and Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot.* Like the novels I've listed above, both deal with students in college and just after college. In a way that surpasses any of them, these two books do an excellent job describing falling in love in college. After all, the real point of college is to fall in love. And I speak from experience when I say that it is easy to fall in love with and fall in love in a small liberal arts college. Given all the recent discussions about higher education in the United States (some of it helpful, most of it not), it is easy to lose sight of how important it is to fall in love with what you learn. You probably aren't able to learn any other way. It is also easy to lose sight of the fact that students can fall in love with all sorts of things: accounting, poetry, chemistry, each other, God. What sets both books apart, however, is not that they depict falling in love in and with college well. Instead, what sets them apart is that the main characters in the novels learn the most difficult thing to accept in college is that they are loved.
The primary love in The Art of Fielding is baseball. The novel is set in Westish College, a fictional small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. The summer after his sophomore year, Mike Schwartz, the catcher for the Westish College Harpooners, sees Henry "Skrimmer" Skrimshander play shortstop in a summer league. Skrimmer is a rare example of pure talent melded with an incredible work ethic. Thanks to Schwartz's encouragement, Skrimmer applies to Westish and finds himself rooming with Owen "The Buddha" Dunne, who warms the bench for the Harpooners and is the first gay man Skrimmer has met. Thanks to Skrimmer's play, the Harpooners become a powerhouse in their division.
The president of Westish is Guert Affenlight, an alumnus of the college, who wrote an important monograph on Melville and discovered, as an undergraduate, that Melville visited Westish on a tour of the Midwest (and thus the mascot changed to the Harpooners). Affenlight lives alone on campus with little personal contact beyond his secretary and the board of trustees of the college. Affenlight's daughter, the twenty-three year old Pella, comes to Westish after leaving her husband. She doesn't quite know what she is looking for, but she hopes to sort out her life in a new environment.
I do not want to give away too much of the book, but suffice it to say that there is more than one romantic love triangle. But the power of the novel comes from the fact that its characters fall in love with their studies, with their college, and with their friends. Harbuch has captured the intensity of the small liberal arts college experience well. As the characters discover this intensity can lead to joyous highs (winning games, devouring texts, building friendships) and heart-breaking lows (graduate school rejections, loneliness, financial difficulties, and interminable schoolwork). These highs and lows, I would argue, center on the characters need for acceptance and purpose. Schwartz is worried about life after college; Pella isnt sure what she is doing in Wisconsin; Owen looks for a meaningful relationship; Affenlight looks for any personal relationship at all; and Skrimmer isn't sure if we can have relationships outside the ninety feet between second and third base.
We find the same intensity in The Marriage Plot. The title of The Art of Fielding came from Skrimmer's favorite book, written by the fictional hall-of-fame shortstop Aparico Rodriguez. The title of The Marriage Plot comes from the title of Madeleine Hanna's senior thesis. Hanna, an English major at Brown, writes about marriage in English novels from Austen to James. At the same time she is writing her thesis, she takes an upper-level seminar in literary theory where she discovers deconstruction and wonders whether the romantic love that Austen and company write about is even possible. (I've often wondered if reading Derrida, de Man, and Barthes had this affect on people.) In the same class she also discovers Leonard Bankhead, a philosophy and biology major who suffers from a deep intellect and from manic depression. Mitchell Grammaticus, who believes he is destined to marry Madeleine, is a religious studies major whose interest in Christianity is more than just academic.
While The Art of Fielding is set entirely within Westish College, The Marriage Plot follows its three main characters from their senior year at Brown through the first year of their post-college lives. Like The Art of Fielding the book captures well the excitement and anxiety that comes with finishing college and being unsure of your future. We see the characters travel, study, write, fall in love, fall out of love, and wonder if they are loved. Madeleine falls for Leonard and wonders if he loves her in return. Leonard wonders if he is capable of loving at all. And Mitchell tries to make sense of love in the language of traditional Christianity.
I enjoyed both books immensely. Harbuch and Eugenides have excellent styles, their characters are well drawn, the plots are familiar enough to be believable but have enough twists to keep them interesting. As I read each book, though, I couldnt help but wonder how much these books would transcend their intended audience. That is to say, I wonder if the precise difficulties the characters in the novels face would make sense to those who have not been in similar situations. There was a part of me that felt bad for Mike Schwartz when he didn't get into to a top law school, and then there was a part of me that remembered he should have applied other places. And there was a part of me that felt for Madeleine when she had difficulty writing and editing her thesis, and then there was another part of me that remembered how fortunate she was to be able to take the time to do that in the first place. Although I am certain everyone cares about love, I am less certain whether falling in love in the idiom of liberal arts education translates as well as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I hope it does. Harbuch and Eugenides have immense talent. After all, whatever the idiom, we all need to be reminded how difficult and how fulfilling it is to accept that we are loved.
*I wonder if grouping Harbuch and Eugenides with Tartt and DeWitt adds, in a roundabout way, to Anthony Domesticos discussion of Harbuch being a particularly male author.