Monday, February 9, 2009

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

Towards the end of this book, two of the central characters have this conversation:

"So what do women prefer? For their men to be fine? Or luuuuvly?"
"Oh, whichever a woman ends up with, she'll wonder if she wouldn't rather have the other."

That pretty much sums up the premise of The Post-Birthday World - the What If, explored. Irina McGovern, a talented but little known illustrator of childrens' books, has lived nearly ten years with solid but boring Lawrence. Then one night, she finds herself stoned,alone and within kissing distance of the handsome and exciting Ramsey . Should she lean in for that kiss and destroy her comfortable, if predictable, life with Lawrence. Or step away and preserve that ordinary happiness?

The book then goes on to explore either possibility. Alternate chapters plot her life over another five years or so, as her relationships progress, flounder and reach their seperate conclusions - essentially, two novels in one. Her relationships in turn influence her growth as an illustrator, with her career following different paths with either choice.

Lawrence supports her career, is dependable, an intellectual and a fellow American. But he is also patronizing and often distant, and more a creature of routine than Irina can bear. Ramsey is a rich and dashing snooker player, and has very little in common with Irina, yet he listens to her in a way Lawrence never has, and she feels a chemistry and connection to him that she never really had before. Being with Ramsey also brings her illustrations to life - she creates a successful book blazing with colour and vigour that earns her fame. Success eludes her, however, while she stays with Lawrence. And, even as she basks in the quiet glow of her moral choice to stay faithful to him, she finds Lawrence receding from her.Most devastating of all, neither man is quite what she thinks they are.

This was an extremely long book (600 pages), and needessly so. It is no epic saga, after all, do we need an account of practically every conversation, meal and walk Irina takes in either life, to understand her better? Both storylines follow the same points of reference in Irina's life - incidents, meetings with people, Christmas at her mother's, the World Trade Centre crashes - with her responses to each varying depending on the choice she has made. However, this soon falls into a rather predictable rut and the disappointments ahead for her are a foregone conclusion for the weary reader. While I was intrigued by the concept of parallel lives,this book quickly became a tedious read for me, and the over usage of snooker terminology to describe Irina's life with Ramsey was frankly annoying. The wordiness also ruins the suspense, as you have to wade through page after page to see what happens next.

The character of Irina was very believable, though not always comfortable for me. She is emotionally needy, still burdened by the inadequacies she felt as a child, still at odds with her domineering mother. This is no superwoman, but a woman who would dither and second guess herself, and whose need for true, endless love is bigger than anything else in her life. And despite which choice she makes, she is unable to shake off her attraction for the one she turns away from, with predictably unpleasant consequences. It doesn't help that both men are themselves flawed. I got the feeling that she was attracted to these men because they represented the kind of person she wanted to be herself. Another interesting touch was the childrens' stories Irina develops in the book, which essentially mirror her own dilemmas .

The last chapter is a nice touch - it could belong to either story. I do wish, however, that the author hadn't resorted to the death of a central character as a device to resolve the two stories and lift Irina to a state of grace as selfless caregiver/ friend - and I wish we could have been spared the homilies on life and loving. There is a suggestion here that Irina may be at another crossroad again - will she get back with one of the men again, or walk away?

For Irina's sake, I hope it's the second, but that is a sequel I am unlikely to seek out and read.

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