Monday, May 7, 2007

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver--a review


I enjoyed The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver, for many reasons, but mostly, I think, because I related to the main character.

Irina McGovern is a 40ish American children’s book illustrator living in London with her boyfriend of ten years, Lawrence Trainer, who works for a prestigious think tank. Irina is pretty content in her life with Lawrence, though there are few sparks left.

One fateful night, when Lawrence is out of town, Irina meets their mutual friend, Ramsey Acton, for dinner to celebrate Ramsey’s birthday. Ramsey is a professional snooker player with an East End accent and a handsome face, and Irina finds herself fiercely attracted to him. There is a point in the evening where Irina can either kiss Ramsey, or stop herself.

This is where the novel really begins. Shriver now divides the book into parallel narratives, alternating chapters about what happens to Irina’s life if she kisses Ramsey, and what happens if she doesn’t.

Musing on the road not taken must be a human compulsion, because it is such a common artistic theme. For example, this book reminded me quite a bit of the enjoyable 1998 British movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah, which is also about the two stories that result when a woman makes a choice between two men—but in the movie, the choice of one man was clearly better than the other. Here, to the book's credit, there is no clear-cut winner.

For Irina McGovern, staying with Lawrence is the safe choice, the way of faithfulness and loyalty, but it is also the way of complacency and stagnation. Lawrence is solid and caring, and shepherds Irina’s career, but he is also intellectually superior and smug, uninspiring in bed, and one of his favorite words to use about others is “moron”. Lawrence and Irina’s relationship is generally harmonious but a little boring.

On the other hand, Ramsey is attractive, intense, and their sexual connection overshadows the fact that they have little in common. Ramsey is possessive of Irina, obsessed with snooker to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and can’t seem to care about any aspect of Irina’s life that doesn’t include him. And their relationship is turbulent--Ramsey and Irina fight all the time.

It may sound like Shriver’s portraits of these men are as one-dimensional polar opposites, but they’re not. Instead, Shriver’s characters are subtle, and what makes the whole thing believable is her nuanced depiction of Irina, who becomes, through the small details of her life, a most believable and sympathetic heroine.

Early on in the book, I felt like one of the weaknesses was that these men were both so unappealing. I wanted to say to Irina that neither of her choices seemed so great to me, and maybe she should get rid of both of these guys and start over. But later I felt like maybe Shriver was effectively pointing out that life is not so easy, and choices we make are usually not so clear-cut as the choice between good and evil.

Initially I also wasn’t sure how much I could like Irina if her whole life seemed to turn only on her choice of man. But later I felt that Irina’s choice was not only about men, but also about what kind of life she wanted, and who she wanted to be. She was choosing between a safe but unexciting life and one with the drama of a more compelling love, but she was making sacrifices either way. Again, what’s interesting here is that neither choice is only good or bad; they are both open to interpretation. Shriver is really good at showing us all the shades of gray in life.

Also showing us the shades of gray, Shriver confounds the reader’s expectations with several good plot turns—she doesn’t make either plot end exactly the way I thought it would.

Overall, I was impressed that Shriver really made me care about Irina’s welfare. I really thought about the choices Irina was making, and the consequences of those choices. And the book made me think about what part of our destiny is chance, and what part is choice.

16 comments:

iliana said...

That was a wonderful review. Plus you mentioned "Sliding Doors", which is a film I really liked so that's it, the book goes on the list :)

Gentle Reader said...

Iliana--I liked Sliding Doors, too--I even cut my hair into something resembling the short cut Gwyneth Paltrow had in the movie, but of course it didn't look as good on me. (That's always a fools errand for me, anyway...)

Hope you like the book! Shriver's a really interesting writer.

Robin said...

You really sparked my interest in this book, so I'm adding it to the list. I'd better put Sliding Doors on my queue because I haven't seen it and it sounds good, too! Thanks!

Gentle Reader said...

Robin--The movie is a really nice romance. Hope you enjoy both!

stefanie said...

I've not read Shriver before and your review of the book has me interested.

Gentle Reader said...

Stefanie--this is a really thought-provoking book, and it also made me want to read her earlier book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, though I'm not sure I'm going to go there, because the subject matter is pretty disturbing...

SFP said...

I have Kevin on my list at the library (I think I'm six or seven at this point), but based on your review, I think this is the one I ought to be reading.

Gentle Reader said...

sfp--well, for me, the subject matter of Post-Birthday World was a little easier to handle, but I'm sort of attracted and repelled at the same time by the idea of Kevin...

Bookfool said...

What a wonderful review! Before I got to your comment about Sliding Doors, I was already mentally comparing the book with the movie. I do love Sliding Doors but I like the idea of things not being as clear-cut. I've just added this one to my wish list. Thanks!

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--I just got back from my book group meeting, where we talked about The Post-Birthday World. It was a great discussion, and everyone really liked how Shriver didn't paint a rosy picture of either of the choices that her main character makes--life's just not that clear-cut...

Lesley said...

Another fan of Sliding Doors here, so now my interest in this book is piqued. I've seen it in the bookstore and the cover art reminded me of the cover for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - I wonder if they were done by the same artist?

Gentle Reader said...

lesley--you're right, the covers are similar. I looked it up and they are by two different designers...but clearly there's a trend here! Hope you enjoy the book :)

liz said...

I'm halfway through this book and seriously considering putting it down. Althought the basic plot is interesting i'm finding the couples' conversations deadly and the way she writes Ramsey's lines really distracting. And nobody can care that much about the finer points of snooker! I also agree that both men are unappealing as is Irina most of the time. The fact that Shriver is relatively young keeps leaping out at me in the way she describes relationships. Oh well, can't like them all.

Gentle Reader said...

Liz--I thought the snooker stuff was really boring, too, but I actually liked that she chose a profession for her "attractive" character that was so unattractive to both Irina and probably most of her audience. I put "attractive" in quotes because I didn't think Ramsey was attractive, but I thought it was really interesting that Shriver (whether intentionally or not) made him sexually compelling to Irina, but not so appealing in the abstract. I liked that neither man was very appealing, because I thought the whole book hinged on the fact that her choices were not perfect--that it was sort of about how neither of these stories turns out to be very positive, because life throws in curves like illness, bad money management, career ups and downs, etc.

In my book group, we decided that Shriver did sort of come down on the side of Irina's choosing Ramsey--choosing the impulsive, visceral feelings that Ramsey stirred up rather than staying with the seemingly safer Lawrence (maybe because Shriver did something similar in real life).

But it was interesting that nobody in my book group would have done the same as Irina. None of us found Ramsey appealing enough. We all have kids, so we look at relationships differently now, too.

My book group was also harsh about Irina's relationship with Lawrence, though. I remember someone saying that Irina's relationship with Lawrence was as safe and sexually unexciting as it was because she was with him because he was a stand-in for the father that left her. Which, without spoiling the end of the story, is interesting if you consider THAT when you consider how Lawrence behaves toward Irina.

Okay, probably more than you wanted to discuss, but anyway--though I felt the book was flawed, it provoked one of the livelier book group discussions we've ever had!

liz said...

Well, I went back and finished the book and, while I enjoyed the second half more than the first, I still felt the characters were disappointingly one dimensional. I felt like the author was having a little too much fun with the cleverness of writing parallel stories and didn't really do enough character development. And I didn't really like either Irina.

sophisticateddorkiness.com said...

I agree. I like that there was no clear cut better choice. At first I thought Ramsey was a mistake, but then later in the book I started to hope Irina had chosen him over Lawrence. By the end, I wasn't sure who I liked more.

I also reviewed this book, you can find mine here.

Kim