Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Post-Birthday World

I was truly looking forward to reading The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver after reading her novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. The Post-Birthday World was published in 2007 and the hardcover edition has 517 pages.

In The Post-Birthday World we follow the life of Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator. She is in a long term relationship with Lawrence Trainer, a terrorism expert. While Lawrence is away on business he encourages her to dine out for what was a traditional birthday dinner with their newly divorced friend, Ramsey Acton, a champion snooker player. At the end of their evening, she finds herself desperately wanting to kiss Ramsey. It is at this junction that the story splits into two versions, or two alternate universes. In one Irina does not kiss Ramsey. In the other she does.

From Amazon:

"Lionel Shriver's wonderful new novel... creates parallel universes that indulge all our what-if speculations... Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator... admits, "The only thing I can't live without is a man." In this case, Shriver grants her two.

The first, Lawrence Trainer, a sweetly geeky terrorism expert, offers tranquil domesticity.... For more than nine years, "monogamy had been effortless" -- until the second man turns up. He's Ramsey Acton, dazzling celebrity snooker champion and husband of Irina's collaborator, Jude. Every year on Ramsey's birthday, Irina and Lawrence dine out with Ramsey and Jude. One July, Lawrence, away on business, encourages Irina to meet Ramsey, newly divorced, for the traditional birthday ritual. After four sakes, a deluxe platter of sashimi, cognac and a joint, Irina watches Ramsey play snooker and thinks, "If Ramsey didn't kiss her, she was going to die."

The rest of the story pivots on this will-they-or-won't-they as the novel splits into alternating chapters; in one, they kiss; in another, she turns away. Who is Irina's Mr. Right? In excessive, often obsessive, detail, Shriver explores Irina's life with each candidate through the quotidian and across a larger political and social landscape that includes Bosnia, the death of Princess Diana and 9/11.....

As Irina learns that no matter what kind of man a woman picks, "she'll wonder if she wouldn't rather have the other," the accretion of details, the parsing of characters' angst, the little moments blown into big can seem like so much navel-gazing. However fascinating, the microscopic analysis of the two objects of Irina's affection can also be wearying. Nevertheless, the rewards for sticking with these 500-plus pages are as delicious as one of Irina's feasts. Copyright 2007, The Washington Post"

Although The Post-Birthday World is not as haunting as We Need To Talk About Kevin, I felt it was very successful. This could be a novel that you either like or dislike, with little ground in between. There was a bit too much usage of the f-word but I understand how it suited the characters. Shriver is an intelligent writer and has continued to use the exact words she wants to for the situation and the characters. I've come to the conclusion that I will be following her work from now on.


"The feeling was not of being attractive precisely, but rather of not having to entertain. It was breathtaking: to be ensconced in another person;s company, yet to be relieved of the relentless minute-by-minute obligation to redeem one's existence - for there is some sense in which socially we are all on the Late Show, grinning, throwing off nervous witticisms, and crossing our legs, as a big black hook behind the curtain lurks in the wings."

"To inhabit your own contentment is to be wholly present, with no orbiting satellite to take clinical readings of the state of the planet."

"Boredom with routine is a luxury, and one unfailingly brief. You are awarded a discreet number of mornings and are well advised to savor every single awakening that isn't marred by arthritis or Alzheimer's."

"Like Anne Tyler's characters, these accidental tourists traveled in a hermetic capsule all done up in green baize."

"As in most revolutions, creating chaos is a cinch, restoring order thereafter is an undertaking both dreary and monumental. But however oppressive one's own character can become, long enough as someone else, you begin to miss it. "

"Since the love we distill for each beloved conforms to such a specific, rarefied recipe, with varying soupcons of resentment, pity, lust, and sometimes even pinches of dislike, you really needed as many different words for the feeling as there were people whom you cared for in your life."

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