Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World

12314620.gif It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve written a substantive post on books; actually, it seems like it’s been a while since I’ve been truly absorbed in a book at all. I read a bit here and there, but mostly I’ve been busy doing this and that (retreats, visits with friends, errand-running), and I’ve been on a manic exercise kick that keeps me busy. For those of you who follow my races, last night’s race went very well; it was the longest, fastest race so far this season, and I stayed with the pack the whole time. I didn’t even work all that terribly hard to do it. Don’t get me wrong — I was definitely working — but it wasn’t kill-myself working. This weekend’s race got postponed, so the next race is Tuesday, which means I have some days available to do some long rides. I hope to begin tomorrow.

But, yeah, I’m going to write about books. I finished Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World last week and can report that I liked the experience very much; this is my first Shriver novel, but probably not my last (I need to read Double Fault next, if only because it’s got women athletes in it). It was a gripping novel, one I was happy reading for hours at a time, and, at over 500 pages, one that lasts a while too. It’s got three main characters, and we stay with them and only them for most of the novel; there are other minor characters here and there, but mostly it’s a lot of time with those three people. So, as you can probably guess, there’s lots and lots of character analysis, lots of relationship analysis, lots of scenes of agonized and agonizing dialogue and critique and confession. There are lots of fights and frustration and anger. It could feel claustrophic, all that time in a fairly narrow world, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Or maybe that’s just the way life is — a lot of time spent thinking about just a few relationships.

The main character, Irina, is practically married, although not quite, to Lawrence — they’ve been together many years but have never gotten around to the ceremony — and early in the novel (I won’t give anything much away) Irina is tempted to kiss Ramsay Acton, a snooker star, on his birthday. What happens is that two versions of the “post-birthday world” arise — one where she does kiss him, and one where she doesn’t. From that point on, the narrative splits into two strands, one following each world and each one narrated in alternating chapters. We get to see how things work out each way.

Shriver has a lot of fun (or it strikes me that it would have been fun) narrating the two worlds side-by-side; things are different in each world, obviously, but not as different as we might think. A lot of the same things happen in each version, but not always done by the same person or with the same meaning. Similar conversations take place, but the dialogue gets spoken by different people; Irina finds some successes and some failures in one world, and mirroring ones in the other; the roles of victim and victimizer, betrayer and betrayed shift around. It’s hard to say which world is better, and surely that’s part of the point — that the decisions we make can seem so very significant and life-changing, but from a larger perspective perhaps don’t make as much difference as we think.

I was struck throughout the novel at what jerks both Lawrence and Ramsay could be; although they are very different types of people, which is why Irina has such trouble making up her mind about them (she says at one point that they would be perfect combined into one man), they both tend to treat her badly, bossing her around, judging her, not letting her be herself. I’m not sure what to make of this — are we supposed to feel bad for Irina, that even though she loves both of these men, and they each make her happy in their own, very different ways, she doesn’t seem realize just what controlling bastards they can be? I wanted her to figure more of that out, to complain about it more, but she tends to accept their criticism and their pettiness and to blame herself, as though she’s constantly making mistakes, when she’s not.  I suppose this isn’t really a complaint about the novel, since the story is told from Irina’s point of view (third person, but following her consciousness), and it’s part of Irina’s character not to stick up for herself as much as she might, but it was painful to read about nonetheless.

At times I thought the writing was a bit sloppy; the point of view didn’t always seem consistent — it was told from Irina’s perspective, but sometimes a voice would intrude, saying things that Irina wouldn’t, in order to get across some information. But that’s a minor quibble. Mostly I was enthralled with this very close look at love and romance, at the varied types of love different relationships can offer, at the effects of time on any relationship.

It turns out that Charlotte has recently read this book too; make sure not to miss her post on it.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

13 responses to “Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World

  1. Sounds good. Reminds me of a French film called ‘Smoking/No Smoking’. I haven’t seen this for years but I recall a similar theme of split narratives.

  2. Sounds interesting. By the end of the book do we know what choice Irina actually made?

  3. Oh, and congrats on the good race!

  4. Stephen — that film sounds really interesting — thanks for mentioning it! Stefanie, thanks about the race! Although the two narrative strands do join at the end, it’s not really a matter of one actually happening and the other not. The book explores both possibilities as genuine ones, so we’re left with both.

  5. Seems we have very similar reactions to the book, with the minor intrusion of the narrative voice being the only quibble! All in all it was a great read, I thought.

  6. Pingback: The Post-Birthday World « Charlotte’s Web

  7. I would definitely recommend ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ – tis an absolute virtuoso performance of a novel. I haven’t read ‘Double Fault’ but I know that it (and, indeed, ‘Post Birthday-World’) have been trounced in the mainstream review media over here in the UK. But that is probably just sour grapes at a woman who did so well with winning the Orange Prize.

  8. It sounds like the movie Sliding Doors as well–though that is less about making two different choices than how five minutes difference might change your life (in one thread the character catches a train, and in one thread she doesn’t–and it makes a big difference in her life). I am waiting for my turn to get this from the library. I have heard We Need to Talk About Kevin is very good as well (in big part from Victoria!), but I want to read her newer book first. Glad to hear you’re doing well with your racing!

  9. I agree Charlotte! I enjoyed reading your review. Victoria — maybe I should try to find some of those bad reviews, as I’m interested to see what they say — not that I’d take them all that seriously, really, but I’m curious. Danielle — yeah, that movie too! I guess it’s an idea people think about a lot — how would my life be different if I’d made another choice?

  10. As you know, I’m looking forward to reading a Lionel Shriver novel. This one sounds very intriguing, and I may well get it when it comes out in paperback over here.

  11. I read The Post-Birthday World and loved it. Do you really think these men treated her badly? I thought Lawrence was incredibly supportive and interested in her career (whereas Ramsey was not), although he was obviously pretty bogged down with his own work. But it was something that Irina needed — to have her own job validated by the man she loved.

    I would seriously recommend reading We Need to Talk About Kevin. I read it a few years back and found it too profound to review. It’s one of those books that leaves you reeling.

  12. I look forward to your thoughts on her Litlove! Kimbofo, I couldn’t stand the way Lawrence bossed her around, critiqued her all the time, and was a bit of a passive-aggressive control freak with her. But I do agree that he supported her career much more than Ramsey did — Ramsey had his own serious flaws, of course. I suppose this controlling thing is something a lot of people do, and I think I’m particularly sensitive to it.

  13. I wish I could find a copy of that book here in the Philippines. The major bookstores here aren’t selling Shriver’s books! :( I just luckily found We Need to Talk about Kevin in a booksale.

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