cover image Double Fault

Double Fault

Lionel Shriver. Doubleday Books, $22.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-385-48830-3

An unabashed message--love and ambition don't mix--flashes repeatedly between the lines of this earnest narrative about two tennis pros who must choose between their marriage and the game. In her sixth novel, Shriver (The Female of the Species) has imagined a credible marriage crisis: when Wilhelmina (Willy) Novinski and Eric Oberdorf meet, Willy already has standing in the ranks of pro tennis, and Eric, fresh out of Princeton, is scrambling to organize his ascent. Together and apart, they hit the circuit, gathering ranking points in a competitive, erotic struggle that infuses their marriage with rising tension. Their roles reverse: Willy grudgingly acknowledges Eric's skill, then struggles to beat him and ends up humiliated as he masters her own game and uses it against her. Eventually, Willy succumbs to the fear of failure that ensures the failure she fears. Shriver stacks the deck against Willy, whose defeatist family and embittered coach have filled her with mean-spirited insecurities, so that her final sacrifice for Eric (equally cocky but more individualized and just plain nicer) is also, unfortunately, her only really instinctive, unprogrammed gesture in the book. In a lengthy letter included with the galley, Shriver explains that she wrote this novel as a cautionary tale about the fatal mix of love and ambition. By substituting simple ""truths"" for complex, dynamic characters, this didactic novel fulfills her purpose all too well. (Aug.)