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.