I knew my Mum’s obsession with Wimbledon would come in handy one day

Double Fault
by Lionel Shriver

I picked up this book, like many people have, I suspect, because I was bowled over by We Need to Talk About Kevin and was hoping for more of the same hard-hitting, emotionally draining, intelligently frightening fiction. This was a good book, but it wasn’t those things; not really.

It does cover some of the same ground, though. This is a dissection of a modern marriage, a tumultuous story of two large egos struggling to adapt to loving someone. There’s a lot of introspection, a lot of dissection, a lot of resentment and only brief euphoric highs.

The background is the world of professional tennis and Shriver has clearly done some homework here. As I often find to be the case, I found a lot of the detailed descriptions of matches or point systems to be laboured and dull. But then I’m really not a sports fan. And the book isn’t really about tennis so it’s probably okay that I started skimming those passages.

What it’s really about is doggedly pursuing ambition in the face of many reasons not to, confusing your self with your ability, gender politics in relationships, and the difficult questions of marriage itself – should it change you? Should love have already changed you so that the compromises of marriage are a breeze? What if your career requires you to be the sort of person who never compromises? How do you switch that off when you get home? Plus the added complications of being a professional athlete – being away from home a lot, having to fit in training – and you have a marriage that seems doomed from the start.

I was not bowled over by this book but I do think it was well done, so I think I have to admit that my problem was mostly with the main characters and my inability to connect with them. Wilhelmina “Willy” Novinsky had some charm at first in her noviceness at relationships, it is sweet to see her being won over. But she has so much anger in her, and is so ready to blame everyone else in her life when things go wrong, that I lost all empathy with her.

The writing is good, with believable dialogue that occasionally raised a chuckle or a wry smile of familiarity from me. There’s an early scene where Willy is on a date and senses that she is being scored on her answers to some probing questions. The one question she won’t answer is the lighthearted assertion that she must be having an affair with her coach. It’s a neat way of introducing the possibility, and the air of disappointment and uncertainty that flavours the whole book.

The back of my copy had a couple of pages of reading group questions, and I do think this could be a good choice for a book club. There’s a lot I’d love to discuss that I can’t raise here without giving away key plot points, particularly in the gender politics area.

First published 2006.