"Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope" - Dr Seuss
"Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint." - Mark Twain
Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault is a story of competition set, not on the tennis court, but in marriage. It is a poignant, and at times harrowing, exploration of the struggles encountered in a relationship between two professionals.
Willy has always lived and breathed tennis. At 23 she is a star in the making. When she meets Eric, who is himself an aspiring player, a passionate relationship ensues. Yet Eric’s character stands in stark contrast to Willy’s. Far from having built his life around becoming the next McEnroe, his has been one full of intense but fleeting interests. For Eric tennis is a chance to make money, but for Willy “tennis is everything”.
Double Fault is drenched in irony. From the outset Willy is the prodigy, who has devoted her life to tennis. Yet it is Eric who rises up the rankings, increasingly destined for the big-time, Meanwhile Willy’s career falls apart, and she is left to watch with no small amount of bitterness as he plays the tournaments she has always dreamed of.
Shriver deliberately creates characters that are “hard to love”, and this book is full of them. Willy finds herself unable to feel happy for Eric, and their relationship disintegrates. Her self-loathing and resentment towards Eric make hard reading at times, to the point where we wonder how believable a character Willy is. For Shriver: “I use my characters to examine aspects of myself of which I’m suspicious, or with which I’m not terribly comfortable”. Our reading of Willy makes us consider to what extent we could have felt happy for Eric, had we been placed Willy’s shoes, and we are forced to contemplate our own selfish nature.
We are left to wonder why it is Eric, and not Willy, who succeeds. Every part of Willy craves it, and needs it, but Eric has none of Willy’s desire or passion. The answer, which Shriver reveals with her opening quote: “Rarely do you get something if you want it too much”, stands as a theme for the story. Eric does not fear failure in the same way that Willy does, partly because tennis does not mean the same to him, and partly because he simply does not believe that he will lose. This is reflected powerfully in their relationship too. Eric never seriously entertains the idea that their marriage is doomed, but Willy becomes convinced that it is over, bitterness and defeat around every corner are all that she can envision.
A striking realisation that Willy makes is that her capacity to love Eric is at the mercy of circumstance, in particular the status of her tennis game. If she is not in love with her game, she cannot bring herself to love Eric. We are left to contemplate whether it was her injured knee, or the rivalry she created with Eric that destroyed her career, whether the latter caused the former, and to what extent Eric himself contributed. We wonder how she is able to so thoroughly destroy the one thing she loves most: tennis, and what she will ever find to replace the empty void that it has left.
While masterfully written and thought-provoking Double Fault has never enjoyed popularity to rival Shriver’s highly acclaimed We need to talk about Kevin.
“I thought I’d hit on a very timely subject in Double Fault —professional competition in the two-career marriage—and the bloody thing sold a meager 5,000 copies. Go figure” tells Shriver (http://bombsite.com/issues/93/articles/2774).
To some extent this may be due to the tennis backdrop. Details of the tennis circuit and on-court descriptions may strike many readers as tedious, and, while I personally enjoyed them, as a tennis fan I am a highly partial judge. Ultimately, tennis serves (excuse the pun) as an example, one that could be replaced by any other profession that becomes impossible to disentangle from a marriage.
Reading Double Fault, you are headed towards a depressing conclusion with all the inevitability of Rafael Nadal moving through the Roland Garros draw. There are sporadic rays of hope that left me thinking an upset could be on the cards: that Willy did love Eric and would work it out, but these moments were rare and deceiving. As Willy says herself “… in a way resuscitation was cruel – like the gift of an orange to a prisoner who would return to bread and water”. In many ways it left me feeling disappointed, empty, but it gives plenty of food for thought. An excellent and gripping, if not happy, read.