The narrator of Lionel Shriver’s book about middle class white America’s obsession with extreme exercise is Serenata Terpsichore. Aside from having an annoying name, Serenata is one big pain in the neck. Her husband is Remington Alabaster (another annoying name) and just when Serenata has turned sixty and is facing knee replacements after a life-time of daily workouts which include 500 sit-ups followed by 500 burpees followed by a ten mile run, Remington announces he is going to run a marathon. He has his reasons. He has just had a sudden halt to his career and needs to do something to feel better about himself. But she who knows all has been there, done that, with exercise and doesn’t want him taking it up now. Here she is explaining why,
You described athleticism as having become ‘exalted.’ That’s an apt word. But I’ve never seen exercise as exalted. It’s biological housework, like vacuuming the living room rug. These days, to wear yourself out is to attain a state of holiness. All these newbies seem to think they’re making the leap from man to god. This… sanctimony, this…self-importance…
Serenata sees herself as a trail blazer; she always exercised before it was fashionable, she had a tattoo before it was fashionable. She says she cares nothing for the opinion of others (except Remington) but she is quite annoyed when his triathlon club friends regard her as someone just there to provide wine and food for them after training.
Lionel Shriver is a controversial writer. She won the Orange Prize for We Need to Talk About Kevin, her book in which a sixteen-year old boy shoots school classmates and watches them bleed to death, but she has had a great deal of unfavourable comment about her attitude to MeToo, and racism. In the incident where Remington, Serenata’s husband, gets thrown out of his job due to a completely unbelievable incident of political correctness, one cannot help but feel she is pushing her anti political correctness barrow.
Serenata and Remington have two rather unlikeable children, also with annoying names, Valeria, a born-again Christian in a sect called the Shining Path Ministry (the same name as a Peruvian terrorist organization) who has an ever growing brood of children, one of whom an eleven year old called Nancee, shows signs of the same exercise obsession as her grandmother. Their son Deacon seems to live quite comfortably without employment. They suspect he is a drug dealer.
At Remington’s first attempt at a marathon he meets the truly awful Bambi Buffer, the coach who takes over his training and his life. She gives advice like this
‘It’s unorthodox’ – she’d turned back to Remington – ‘but I don’t recommend much resting up after a marathon. Sure, take tomorrow off. But then get right back in the saddle. You gotta master the body, teach it who’s boss.’
There are trainers like this. All too many. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard a trainer say was said on a well-known TV show where overweight people competed to lose huge amounts of weight in a very short time. An unfit woman was being made to run on a treadmill and when she gasped to the trainer that she was in pain the man said,
‘Pain is weakness leaving the body.’
No it’s not. It’s the body telling you it’s about to have a heart attack or tear a hamstring or just keel over from lack of oxygen. But sadly, many clients buy this, as do Bambi’s.
She leads the aspiring athletes in her thrall into the MettleMan triathlon, where they have every chance of sustaining a life limiting injury. Of course, her attitude and power over Remington and his friends infuriates Serenata. But even though she is just out of hospital after knee surgery, she decides to attend the triathlon to make sure Remington survives. This section is the most gripping in the book.
Then we have an aftermath where Serenata tells how glad she is not to have to exercise any more now she has had surgery. She can drink wine, put on a bit of weight, because she is old; all of sixty-two.
In spite of the title of this book, what is completely ignored by this writer (who herself is due for knee surgery and known to do the odd 500 sit ups) is the joy of moving the body through space. Walking, running, bike riding, swimming, dancing, skiiing, ice-skating; many are the activities people do just because they love the feeling of it. Not to be thin, not to beat others or boost their flagging self-esteem, but just for the sheer joy of it.
The Gerts belong to this club, no other.
Guy has just reviewed it too: