24 July 2011

A Match Made Far from Heaven

Lionel Shriver is very skilled at creating unsympathetic female characters. Sometimes, if I don't like the principal character, I find myself disliking the book too but somehow, I found We Need to Talk About Kevin and Double Fault compelling, as well as uncomfortable, reads. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the antagonist Eva writes letters to her estranged husband Franklin, telling him her side of the story of their relationship and of the birth and upbringing of their son Kevin, who, at almost 16, carries out a massacre at his high school. Eva is selfish and strong-willed but she's also very successful in her career as the managing editor of a series of travel books--far more successful than Franklin--and the competitiveness between husbands and wives is a theme that recurs in Double Fault, which I read this week.

Double Fault tells the tale of 23-year-old tennis player Willy Novinsky--ranked 386 and on her way up--and Eric Oberdorf, another would-be tennis star who, at the start of the book is ranked in the 900s. In the foreword, Shriver cautions that it isn't really about tennis so much as about a relationship--a marriage--and not a happy one. In fact, Double Fault made downright grim reading, for the most part. Willy has been good at tennis for her whole life but she has always had to support herself without help from her parents, partly because they couldn't afford to send her to training camps and tournaments and partly, Willy thinks, because they are both so bitter about their own failures and wasted opportunities that they are desperate to see her fail. Eric, meanwhile, is good at everything to which he turns his hand and has managed to claw his way into the top 1000, despite only having picked up a racket a year or two earlier. His well-off father is paying his way. He is also very good at many other things. He destroys Willy at Scrabble, he can skip longer, faster and harder than she can, he speaks several languages, and he has an Ivy League degree. Willy, by contrast, dropped out of the University of Connecticut in her third year, mainly because if she completed her degree, it would prove to her father that she felt she needed a back-up plan.

Willy and Eric marry and although their relationship seems to do wonders for Eric's tennis playing, it starts to cause problems for Willy. Soon after their marriage, he beats her for the first time and nothing will ever be the same again, as Eric's ranking begins its meteoric rise into the top 100 and Willy loses and loses and loses. And she can't accept her husband's success. She has dedicated herself to tennis for most of her life and she deserves to make it to the big time whereas for Eric, tennis is just something he enjoys and happens to be good at.

As Willy's jealousy, resentment and anger grow, cracks begin to form in her marriage. Giant fault lines in fact. Eric seems infinitely sympathetic and understanding but then it's easy to be the bigger person when you have all the success. Willy seems, at times, to want to push Eric to the point of leaving her but because he doesn't do anything by half measures--and because he has channeled all of his emotions of love, desire and companionship into the neat compartment that is Willy--he will never leave her. Their marriage will only come to an end if she leaves him. And just as she can't quite bring herself to give up tennis, even when, after an injury, her ranking continues to plummet through the floor, can she really leave the man she loves and hates with almost equal measures?

Willy isn't entirely unsympathetic. As a competitive person myself, I can understand how crushing it must be to be beaten at the one thing you're supposed to be the best at. How that could tear down any sense of self-worth you ever had and how that must make it so painful to be supportive of the other person's easy success. For much of the book, though, it is hard to believe that Willy really does love Eric at all. Various characters including Willy's coach (a former tennis star and older man who recruited Willy on a court in Las Vegas in part, it seems, because he was attracted to her) muse that a marriage between two tennis players could never work. Someone always has to be the less successful one and even if they both reach the top, the crazy schedules of training, tours and competitions means they aren't even going to be in the same country for a lot of the time. If the wife is better than the husband, she can't respect him but in this case, the husband ends up being better than the wife (or, manages to play better than her, anyway), and she hates him for it and hates herself for allowing him to be better than her.

The title of the novel suggests that both players in this marriage have to accept some responsibility for its failings but when Eric is so reasonable, rational and sympathetic, even after Willy's jealousy brings her to the point of violence, it's difficult to award him much of the blame. Double Fault isn't an easy book to read (if it is made into a movie, Disintegration by the Cure would make a suitable addition to the soundtrack). It's sad, raw, bleak and painfully absorbing.

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