I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Lionel Shriver consistently writes the most interesting, complex female characters. They’re rarely ‘nice’, accommodating or admirable women. It’s certainly evident in Double Fault, where we meet Wilhemena (Willy) Novinsky, an ambitious, self-obsessed tennis player, on the brink of stardom.
Willy is incredibly determined and her focus on tennis does not waver, even when she meets Eric Oberdorf, a guy she beats convincingly in a casual tennis match. She soon discovers that Eric didn’t pick up a racquet until the age of 18 but with the financial support and blessing of his family (something Willy does not have), puts on hold using his mathematics degree from Princeton to give the tennis circuit a whirl. Unlike Willy, Eric does not ‘live and breathe’ tennis, an attitude which both horrifies and attracts Willy, who defines herself by her ranking.
“…their tournaments had been fortuitously staggered, and in the rash prodigality of headlong romance they had flown to watch each other play. Sweet but irresponsible, their mutual admiration society would not last.”
A knee injury temporarily puts Willy out of the game, however the injury coincides with Eric’s swift rise through the ranks – Willy’s competitiveness and frustration about her own situation spills over, sabotaging her career and her relationship.
“She had set her sights from childhood on Flushing Meadow. Having chartered no alternative destination, Willy continued to shamble in the same direction…”
Double Fault lacks some of the subtleties of Shriver’s later novels but it does have her trademark moral twists that make you recoil ever so slightly. And this is an important point because ‘sports stories’ all too often stray into the zone of ‘uplifting’ or trading failure for good sportsmanship. Well, stuff that. Willy detests the fact that Eric becomes more successful than her –
“She could at best conceal her envy, but she was powerless to forbid it. When Eric toted one more trophy home, where she awaited empty-handed, she might cry, Well done! or I hate you! but the only difference was what she said.”
There are traits in all of Shriver’s female characters that are very real, very recognisable and that defy easy narrative solutions – and I suspect that is exactly why many readers reject her books. Admitting to envy, rage and pure hatred isn’t done in polite circles – Shriver takes these traits and emotions and magnifies them to the point where readers feel uncomfortable. It’s clever and in Willy she presents a character that is mean-spirited and envious of her partner’s success, and yet, you thoroughly understand her.
In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Shriver say that the story is “…not so much about tennis as marriage, a slightly different sport.” By combining the two, Shriver reveals how any professional sport is as much a psychological game as a physical one, and more particularly, how challenging circumstances reveal true character.
4/5 Gripping action, both on and off the court.
Willy and Eric regularly dine at a local restaurant and always order the same thing – a chicken and rice dish. I do the same at my local Thai place (it’s always Pad Thai with chicken).