Book Review: “The Catch” by Alison Fairbrother

THE CATCH, by Alison Fairbrother


Writers have always used objects as a tool to tell their stories – Hawthorne’s letter, Maupassant’s necklace, Hammett’s falcon. Follow the bouncing crown, I was taught, to understand the structure of Shakespeare’s historical plays. The literary object, in its most effective form, is a powerful revealer of character – telling us about who owns it and who covets it; those who are attracted to it and those who are repelled by it; those who deem it meaningless and those who overemphasize it.

In the warm and funny of Alison Fairbrother first novel, “The Catch“, revealing tools are a baseball and a tie rack. With these objects, Fairbrother aims to illuminate the character of Eleanor Adler – the 24-year-old narrator grappling with the death of her seductive father and coming to terms with his legacy.

The novel opens with this line: “My father, a little poet, celebrated holidays out of season. The father is James, iconoclastic and charming, a man who has had little success in the material world (he has only one well-known poem) but who is loved by those close to him, perhaps especially his eldest daughter, Ellie. (The first line refers to the fact that James celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter with his four children from three different marriages in the summer when he has custody of them.)

James is the kind of man to invent a drink called “razzleberry fring frong”, to describe Washington, D.C., as “that sybaritic town” of bloviators, only to give a grocery store employee his watch on a whim. In the first chapter, he and Ellie engage in competitive puns, his wife cooks the Thanksgiving turkey in a bikini, his middle daughters Sadie and Anna roll their eyes at him – and he throws away his prized possession, his baseball, back and forth with his son, Van, who goes by the name Van Morrison.

The scene might seem a little too quaint if Fairbrother didn’t temper Ellie’s adoration of her father with healthy ambivalence. She worships him and understands how frustrating he is; she wants to confide in him and she wants to escape his judgment; she believes she is his favorite child, but feels uncomfortable when he praises her above her siblings.

Her place in James’ affections is in question after his sudden death at the age of 52. Despite having few possessions and no savings, James had the foresight to write a will, in which he left a small array of valuable and meaningful items to his family: his record collection to his son, a painting to his wife, his hats to Sadie, his movies from Jerry Lewis to Anna. Ellie is certain that she will inherit the precious baseball. Instead, she is given a glow-in-the-dark tie rack and the baseball goes to a mysterious stranger.

The importance of baseball is linked to James’ most famous poem, “The Catch”. And in both the poem and the novel, the meaning of the title changes as the truth about baseball, and therefore his father, continues to unfold. At first, Ellie quotes James saying that a poem is a way of saying “maybe”. That word guides her as she tries to figure out why she was left with what she considers a “gag gift” instead of a historical keepsake. Maybe that’s the answer, she thinks, as she searches for the baseball’s intended recipient; maybe it’s the man, she thinks, as she learns more about her father’s past.

After the funeral and the disappointing legacy, Ellie returns to Washington, where she works for a news startup and lives in a “social justice-themed” group home with several ambitious roommates in their twenties. Fairbrother worked as a journalist in DC, and his writings on the culture of the place are some of the most entertaining in the novel – insightful, ironic and witty. In an interview, Ellie said, “I moved to DC so I could use impact as a verb”; she describes some co-workers as the type of men who always fix bikes and make “frequent and reverential references to John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’.”

Ellie is in a relationship with Lucas, an older married man whose presence complicates one of the most interesting motifs of “The Catch”: the conundrum of male charisma. Fairbrother acknowledges that charisma can be a smokescreen for obscurity and an excuse for some pretty objectionable behavior. She also nods in delight at a certain type of charm – a quality many people, including those around James, might not have. sought to resist. Read: Despite our better judgment, we can know a man has flaws and still find him amusing. When it comes to Lucas, Ellie craves the thrill that a charming man can give; with youthful self-absorption, she attempts to ignore his wife’s inconvenient facts, her age, and her over-eagerness to jump into bed with her. Their relationship is drawn with such sensuality and tenderness that we too are willing to ignore those facts, rooting them in even as the unnerving reality of her situation lingers in the background.

Fairbrother charts Ellie’s mind after her father’s death – her obsessive thinking, her attempts to distract herself, her subsequent plunge into the reality of loss – with a well-wrought observation of the rhythm and patterns of grief. Once back in her life, Ellie is haunted by the matter of baseball, so she manipulates a new work assignment in order to accommodate her quest to find out more about James – a questionable decision with relatively minor consequences for her. -same, but major. for the people around him. Ellie’s reckless behavior represents an underexplored and therefore thrilling investigation into a family dynamic – one in which a daughter responds to her father’s reckless right not by turning inward, becoming ultra-virtuous or self-destructive, but by acting with a similar reckless right in turn.

Although the mystery of the baseball and the tie rack guides us through the plot, I found myself wishing the objects played a lesser role. The sharpness of this journey and Fairbrother’s constant movement towards closure seems at odds with the strength of this book, which is the description of an intelligent, talented and sexual young woman who is learning, as adults must to do so, to balance pride with humility, pain with pleasure, and acceptable fictions with uncomfortable truths.


Julia May Jonas is the author of “Vladimir”.


THE TAKE, by Alison Fairbrother | 288p. | random house | $27

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