The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver is about Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator living in London with her long-term, intellectual boyfriend Lawrence. One year Irina and Lawrence go out to dinner with a children’s book author with whom Irina works and her husband Ramsey, a famous professional snooker player, on what turns out to be Ramsey’s birthday. Over the next few years, Irina and Lawrence maintain the friendship with Ramsey, getting together with him every year on his birthday until one year when Lawrence is out of town, Irina decides to go to dinner with Ramsey alone. Surprisingly, Irina finds herself drawn to Ramsey and longing to kiss him.
The rest of the book tells what happens after that moment. She kisses him, and one future unfolds. She doesn’t kiss him, and another future unfolds. Told in a parallel structure, the events in one future are played with, altered slightly and told from another perspective in the other future, and the book explores what implications how and who we love have on us.
I was intrigued when I read the description of the book, but I sort of wondered if the premise wasn’t a bit hokey. Haven’t we been there, done that with this type of book? How many mediocre movies have dealt with this idea? Was this book going to be a little bit like those cheesy books from junior high that told the story from the girl’s point of view but switched to the guy’s when you flipped the book over?
Most emphatically, emphatically not I assure you. This book was great. I’ll admit that there were parts of the book that dragged, and it’s a long book since you are dealing with the same span of time and certain pivotal events from two perspectives. When I finished the book, though, I put it down and went, “wow.” It was stunning. Shriver is a masterful writer who takes a convention that could have fallen apart at so many points and keeps the strands of both lives going. I can’t imagine the preparation it took to keep the events straight so that she could twist them for the parallel future. So impressive and clever.
And who among us hasn’t wondered what if? Who hasn’t pondered the road not taken? Who would I be if I had gone to another college instead of my alma mater? Would I have the same life? What I liked about this book was that Irina’s possible futures have different outcomes both professionally and emotionally but the basic events are the same. I think we like to imagine that a decision made differently would have tremendous effects upon our life (e.g. date that guy, become president of the United States; date the other guy, live in a hovel). It’s often not that simple or black and white. Not to say that Irina’s life isn’t dramatically different whether she kisses Ramsey. It is. But it’s within the realm of a normal life.
Shriver’s characters were amazingly well drawn. It amazed me how she could make one character so sympathetic in one future and such an asshole in another. I found myself wanting to mix-and-match characters and futures for Irina to achieve happiness. One question I asked myself many times after I read this book is whether Shriver has a clear preference for one future over another or whether there is a message there. I think there is…maybe just a little bit. I think that one of the futures allows Irina to experience life fully from the extreme lows to the extreme highs. She loves and is loved. She finds professional fulfillment. This future doesn’t end well, but I think she would rather have experienced that future with its highs and lows than the other future which seemed to bring her nothing but lows.