Head to head

<strong>Double Fault</strong>

Lionel Shriver <em>Serpent's Tail, 320pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 1852429

Lionel Shriver thoroughly deserves the success that has arrived, like a Lottery win, after nearly 20 years of publishing fiction. Merit, though, might not have been enough: she also needed the particular chemistry that her seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, generated. Concerning the mother of a teenager who had murdered several fellow students and members of staff at his high school, We Need to Talk About Kevin featured on the BBC's Page Turners, won the Orange Prize and became a favourite subject for discussion among reading groups. A "high-concept" storyline, a television endorsement, a prominent literary award and word-of-mouth recommendations: these are the ingredients that create contemporary bestsellers. The novel has sold more than 200,000 copies.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, compelling as it was, also suggested why Shriver had until then failed to appeal to a wide readership. Marketable novels are supposed to offer characters with whom readers can identify, in an uplifting way; Shriver's characters were not likeable, and they did not achieve redemption. Double Fault, first published in 1997 and now reissued by Serpent's Tail, is similarly uncompromising. Apparently it treats a lighter subject: marriage on the professional tennis circuit. But the effect of the novel is just as bleak.

For Willy Novinsky, the heroine, tennis is not a light subject: it defines her. Since the age of eight, she has wanted only to be a professional player. She has no proper friends and has had only one serious relationship - with her coach. In spite of her ability, she has made slow progress, and, in her tennis middle-age at 23, is ranked 437 in the world. We find her at the opening of the novel on the practice court, preparing to serve: the ball is at the top of the toss, weightless, pure potential. This, we infer, is a similarly charged moment for Willy. She fires down an ace; then she notices a spectator, Eric Oberdorf.

Eric is a Princeton graduate, handsome, confident, and a year younger. Gifted at most things he attempts, Eric looks on tennis as just being the sport he has chosen to pursue and that, at some point, he will leave for some other occupation.

"It's challenging. Keeps me in shape. I could stand to make a packet of money. And I'll have to retire by 40 at the latest, so it allows for a second career."

"You like that? Being forced to quit?"

"Sure. I need variety. I get bored easily. Who'd want to play tennis all day until they're 92?"

"I would!"

"Well, you're a nut," he said affectionately.

Willy, enchanted, believes that Eric's nature is wonderfully complementary to her own. Having consummated the relationship one night on Willy's favourite court, they get married. But Willy discovers that what had seemed charming when her career had been ahead of Eric's be-comes unbearable as he catches her up, and overtakes. When Eric gets an unexpected chance to face a top-ten player, Willy finds herself rooting for his opponent.

The relationship is a forerunner of that of Eva and Franklin in We Need to Talk About Kevin: the fierce, spiky woman and the blithe, obtuse man. Double Fault becomes an unrelenting account of marital disharmony, as Willy watches Eric march with confident determination towards what she has always most wanted.

Anyone who has played sport at any level will recognise Shriver's grasp of sports psychology, especially that feeling you get when you know that you should win but when victory matters too much. This feeling overwhelms Willy during the match that should mark her breakthrough to a ranking of 200, at a tournament where Eric has already gained that status; at triple match point she chokes, and never recovers. In her next tournament, she suffers a worse disaster.

Shriver is less convincing on the technicalities of the game. Without wishing to follow the example of the reviewer who complained that there was not enough gamekeeping in Lady Chatterley's Lover, I feel that a devoted player such as Willy, whose point of view we follow throughout the novel, would think about her technique more often: her grip, her stance, her backswing, her ball-toss, and so on. Still, it is not the purpose of a novel to imitate a coaching manual.

What Shriver is interested in is competition: the brutal rallies, on a hard and divided court, into which a relationship can descend. Neither wife nor husband can win these points. Or, rather, any victory is pyrrhic, and the couple is doomed to carry on the gruelling battle until an endgame arrives. Like Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Willy at last finds a kind of vindication - but it is one achieved at an awful cost.