Book talk: “The Post-Birthday World,” by Lionel Shriver

The Post-Birthday World: A Novel (P.S.) by Lionel Shriver
The Post-Birthday World: A Novel (P.S.)
Lionel Shriver
Harper Perennial, 2008 (paperback) (ISBN 0061187895 / 9780061187896)
Fiction, 544 pages

First sentence: What began as a coincidence had crystallized into a tradition: on the sixth of July, they would have dinner with Ramsey Action on his birthday.

Book description: Children’s book illustrator Irina McGovern enjoys a quiet and settled life in London with her partner, fellow American expatriate Lawrence Trainer, a smart, loyal, disciplined intellectual at a prestigious think tank. To their small circle of friends, their relationship is rock solid. Until the night Irina unaccountably finds herself dying to kiss another man: their old friend from South London, the stylish, extravagant, passionate top-ranking snooker player Ramsey Acton. The decision to give in to temptation will have consequences for her career, her relationships with family and friends, and perhaps most importantly the texture of her daily life.
Hinging on a single kiss, this enchanting work of fiction depicts Irina’s alternating futures with two men temperamentally worlds apart yet equally honorable. With which true love Irina is better off is neither obvious nor easy to determine, but Shriver’s exploration of the two destinies is memorable and gripping. Poignant and deeply honest, written with the subtlety and wit that are the hallmarks of Shriver’s work, The Post-Birthday World appeals to the what-if in us all.

Comments: It took me longer than anticipated to read this, and at times it seemed longer than it needed to be, but it was well worth the time; The Post-Birthday World is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The opening chapter presents the premise, extended from the first sentence quoted above: Over a period of several years, it has become customary for long-term (unmarried) couple Irina McGovern and Lawrence Trainer to meet Ramsey Acton for dinner on his birthday, the sixth of July, even though what was originally a couples’ outing no longer is, since Irina’s friend and collaborator Jude Hartford, Ramsey’s wife and the original arranger of their get-togethers, is neither Ramsey’s wife nor Irina’s friend and collaborator any more. But one year, Lawrence is away at a work-related conference, and urges Irina to meet Ramsey for the birthday dinner without him; after dinner, drinks, and a trip back to Ramsey’s home to smoke a joint, Irina is tempted at his snooker table.

From that point on, each chapter except the last one is told twice – once as if Irina gives in to the impulse, and the kiss with Ramsey leads to an affair that ends her relationship with Lawrence, and then to Irina and Ramsey’s marriage; and once as if she doesn’t, and returns to her life with her partner Lawrence. In both versions, Irina frequently reflects on what she might be giving up with one man as her life moves forward with the other. It’s an excellent framing device, and Lionel Shriver employs it well. Exploring the characters through their actions and feelings in both scenarios, over a period of several years, develops different dimensions, and helped me feel more more connection to and sympathy for them.

I liked the way that each chapter essentially related a similar plot scenario, but with differing details and twists depending on which future it was talking about. For example, Irina writes and illustrates a children’s book. In one version, it’s a creatively assembled two stories in one that doesn’t make a lot of money, but is nominated for a major award. In the other, it’s a different story in a different style, more commercially successful, and it’s nominated for the same award. I also liked that I really had no idea which of the two versions of Irina’s future might be the “real” one; both have their positives and negatives, which makes either direction plausible, and I found it difficult to favor one over the other. The final chapter – which, like the first, is only told once – wraps things up while maintaining that ambiguity. I realize that this very attribute might annoy some readers, but for me, it’s what made The Post-Birthday World an involving, original, and memorable reading experience.

Rating: 4.5/5

Other bloggers’ reviews:
The Bluestocking Society
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Sophisticated Dorkiness

If you have reviewed this book on your blog, please leave a link in the comments or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this post to include it.

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  1. I read this book on my trip to Europe last Spring and loved it. I loved the ambiguity at the end – in a strange way I found it comforting to know that there is more than one path to end up in the same place.

  2. Jessica – Thanks for the link to your review! I’ve edited the post to include it.

    Robyn – I agree; I found the ambiguity very appealing. I’m glad you liked the book too!

  3. I’m glad to hear how much you liked this. I’m going to have to move it up my wishlist. I don’t mind ambiguity sometimes, it’s often those stories with ambiguous endings that stay with us.
    BTW, the plot reminds me slightly of the movie Sliding Doors. Have you seen it? I think I quite like these kinds of stories, I know I’ve often wondered where my life would be if I’d made a different choice at a certain point in time.

  4. Tanabata – I haven’t seen the movie, but I did know the premise, and the book did make me think of it. I’ll be interested in knowing your thoughts on this once you read it!

  5. Thanks for the wonderful review, Florinda. I haven’t heard of this one, although I’ve heard such great things about the author’s other works. I believe I have one of his earlier books sitting around here somewhere waiting to be read.

  6. Wendy (Literary Feline) – He's a she. I read the author Q&A at the end of the book, and Lionel is not her original name. I had assumed the author was a man as well.

    Odd coincidence – my sister bought a copy of this at Borders on Friday, and she hadn't read this post yet at the time!