More books by Lionel Shriver: Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World

I have been reading two more books by Lionel Shriver, whose We Need to Talk about Kevin is one of the best fiction works I read last year. It is not overly literary fiction, and it’s definitely not chick lit – I wonder if there is enough of a market in there, where as an author you don’t have your ego boosted by winning Pulitzers and you don’t have your bank account lifted by selling like Stephen King. But it is fiction I enjoy, and that’s why I recommend it to you.

Double Fault is a tennis drama. It starts out as your standard dual-career couple story, set in the world of pro tennis, and veers vertiginously into Greek tragedy. If you have a spouse in a field of work even remotely related to yours, and at times your career has stalled while your partner’s has taken off — even if you’ve been hell-bent on making it since you were five years old, while he seems to effortlessly glide into success while caring much less than you do — this book will make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is a gloomy tale, and one that offers no solutions.

The Post-Birthday World starts out as your standard “sliding doors” comedy, with the protagonist, a children’s books illustrator, faced with a choice, and then her resulting two lives unfolding in parallel, chapter by chapter, each with its own surprises and its own delights (I particularly enjoyed the author’s subtlety in having her creative process influenced by events from life outside the studio). Yet, each of these two lives will run into bitterness and disappointment, as both the loving and dependable foreign policy expert in one life and the charming and sexy snooker pro in the other life ultimately let her down.

There is a thread running through the female characters in these books: Eva Khatchadourian in Kevin, Wilhemena “Willy” Novinsky in Double Fault, and Irina McGovern in The Post-Birthday World all tell us that, as a rule in life, no matter how hard you try, the best you can is not good enough. Shriver seems to have elevated to a worldview the famous comment by Enoch Powell in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs [emphasis mine].”

Any uplifting evidence to the contrary, dear readers, will be welcome.

2 thoughts on “More books by Lionel Shriver: Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World

  1. The example of Dame Anita Roddick – founder of the Body Shop – comes to my mind. Formerly a social and environmental activist, Anita was sometimes portrayed as an opportunistic woman who had distanced herself from her youth ideals to run a profit-driven organisation. Her followers become even more disillusioned when Anita sold her company to L’Oreal in 2006. She explained that – by integrating the Body Shop into the undisputed industry leader – she would have been able to shape the practices of the cosmetic trade more effectively. Anita’s sudden death a year later actually hindered any material influence by the Body Shop on L’Oreal’s business conduct. Another human affair ending in failure?

    No way. Anita was a unique entrepreneurial talent. But what really set her apart was the intuition that “an approximate realization of my social goals is more attractive than remaining whiter than white in the eyes of the self-consciously ethical”. Anita confronted reality and – even if her ethic convictions got partially bruised and her company eventually lost independence – she worked hard to bring a few precious fragments of her ideals to life. Practices such as ban on animal testing, eco-friendly packaging, sustainable sourcing for raw materials were so thoroughly promoted by the Body Shop that became a de-facto market standard.

    If you have a gift, a talent, you’re morally bound to exploit it. What really matters is to make the most out of your natural endowment. Crashing against reality to answer your inner call – this is not failure. Squandering your potential for pursuing purely hedonistic goals, for refusing to confront opposition, for sheltering the pristine purity of your ideals – this is failure.

    (Anita Roddick’s quote is my recollection from a FT article published in Sep 07)

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