All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

on August 30, 2010

Oh Lionel Shriver, how wordy you are. I’ve read 2 novels by you now and both are bricks, both use language I’ve not heard in customary day-to-day life, in fact both often use words I’ve never even heard of. I feel like I need to read these books with a dictionary close by. Ordinarily, this would probably annoy me. I would resent the pause in reading to ponder a meaning of a word, or the time taken to actually look it up.

But Lionel Shriver, oh how I love your books!

The Post-Birthday World is the story of Irina MacGovern, half Russian, who lives with her reliable-but-slightly-boring partner of 9 years, Lawrence. Both are American ex-patriots living and working in London, Lawrence at some political, intellectual think tank that seems to deal primarily with terrorism, and Irina as an illustrator of children’s books. The couple occasionally form a foursome with the author of one of the books Irina is illustrating Jude and her professional snooker playing husband, Ramsey Acton. Upon first meeting Ramsey, Irina feels a jolt of recognition, although she cannot place him at the time. Afterwards as Lawrence berates for her for ‘why didn’t you tell me her husband was Ramsey Acton?’ she realises she has seen him on TV when Lawrence has been watching snooker tournaments. Lawrence has developed a healthy appreciation for the game during this time living in London. During their foursome dinners, it is he who engages Ramsey, talking snooker constantly.

When Jude and Ramsey split up and so as Ramsey doesn’t think they’ve abandoned him, they have him over to dinner for his birthday. Ramsey long outstays his welcome, finally departing at 3am much to Lawrence’s chagrin (Lawrence has a limited social appetite). They don’t see him for a year until Lawrence, away at a conference on “nation building” in Sarajevo, rings Irina to remind her to take Ramsey out to dinner for his birthday. Irina is reluctant but she notes that for the past five years in a row, they’ve seen Ramsey on his birthday and it would seem hurtful to avoid it now. As it is Ramsey rings her anyway and invites her out to dinner. So off she goes.

To her surprise, the dinner is not as awkward as she expects and she goes back to his place afterwards to get a bit stoned – something she can never do when Lawrence is around, as he’d disapprove (Lawrence, we find out, disapproves of many things). After the joint, while Ramsey is playing some lazy games of snooker, Irina realises that she desperately wants to kiss him. She is consumed by the want, the need, to kiss him. As Ramsey asks her if she feels like a shot, she isn’t even aware of making the decision. She just goes to him.

There, that chapter ends and from then on, the book alternates chapters. In the first set, Irina takes the plunge and kisses him. In the second set, she does not. She escapes the house and goes home to wait for Lawrence to arrive back from Sarajevo. The book divides into two alternate universes detailing the fallout and consequences of her actions, or her inactions that night with Ramsey. What is interesting is that each journey is so incredibly different, but the same conversations, the same moments, the same big events crop up in both versions, albeit often between different people. There is a mirroring in Irina’s destiny in that no matter which path she chooses, some things will happen to her regardless of who she is with in her romantic life and how that choice has reflected on her professional life.

Neither of her two destinies are filled with roses. Some would think that she would be rewarded for refusing the temptation with Ramsey and going back to Lawrence with a free conscience but this is in no way the way that particular journey unfolds. She goes through some incredible hardships down both paths – some different, some the same. It’s hard to say what the best choice to make was, and although that’s not the point, it’s hard to avoid thinking about it. Who hasn’t come to a fork in the road in their life, with two clear choices that you must choose between and then rued later the one you chose? The what if question plagues us all at some stage or other in our lives. There must be many people out there who would’ve liked to sit down with two dvd’s – each detailing how their life would turn out if they made one decision or another (I know I wouldn’t be able to resist passing up that opportunity), and this book is exactly like that for us, the readers. There’s an unspeakable pleasure in being a voyeur, looking into someone’s life. It’s even better when you can look in and judge.

I enjoyed every aspect of this book. I started it on Friday and then had visitors stay the night on Saturday and we spent all Sunday at the Melbourne Zoo, otherwise I could’ve easily finished it Saturday night. It always kept me interested – no, fascinated, is probably a better word, kept me turning pages to uncover Irina’s two destinies. Reading Shriver can be a bit of a trek – like I said earlier, she’s wordy. She doesn’t say in one paragraph what she can say in a page and she doesn’t shy away from long, meandering sentences complete with the kind of vocabulary that makes me feel a tad stupid at times. If you can get past that -and some people can’t, considering it pretentious, unnecessary and her books ridiculously and needlessly long- then it’s a rich reward. She paints a story in such vivid colours that after a while, I don’t notice the length, the depth of the paragraphs. I only see. I don’t even feel like I’m necessarily reading, sometimes. It’s like a vivid picture that just happens to last 500 pages!

Her research is incredibly in depth. Not only are we treated to a dissertation in snooker – rules, regulations, tournaments, etiquette, culture, etc, we are treated to stories within stories, with what Irina is illustrating and then later writing. As Lawrence works in terrorism, we’re delivered knowledge on Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Algeria, Russia, Afghanistan and then America during 9/11. I knew nothing about snooker when I began reading the book other than it was ‘kind of like pool’. Now I could watch a snooker tournament and actually know what was happening! Despite the fact that snooker is a huge part of one particular destiny, it doesn’t get tedious, even though it’s a subject that I could probably have found boring.

What I took away from this story is that you can’t hinge your whole happiness on a single choice. There is no perfect ending, and even if you think at one stage in your life that you’ve made the wrong choice, you can’t know. All you can do is make the best of your life through the choices you’ve made, because life is hard enough without constantly thinking of the what if. Irina places so much importance on marriage, at one part in the novel, and that Lawrence won’t marry her. She has unrealistic expectations of marriage and in her alternate universe, when she does get married, it’s nothing like what she expected it to be. What she lacks in one ‘life’ that she thinks would make her happy she often has in her ‘other life’ only to find that she is missing something from the ‘first life’. Are we that dissatisfied a race that we’re always lamenting what we don’t have, instead of enjoying what we do? I know I’m guilty of it too, on many occasions. I wish I wasn’t, because I think it’s futile! There really is no such thing as ‘happily ever after’. No choice we ever make is going to make our lives perfect. This novel I think, shows that brilliantly

9/10 – Loved it!

(Book #58 of my 75 Book Challenge)


5 responses to “The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

  1. Great review – I loved this book too – and I also loved We Need To Talk About Kevin (but wasn’t quite so keen on So Much For That – have you read it?).

  2. Thank you 🙂 I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin also! I haven’t read So Much For That yet, I picked it up a couple of times in a bookstore but never actually ended up taking the plunge and buying it.

  3. Shannon says:

    Fantastic review, as always Bree 🙂

    I’ve had We Need to Talk About Kevin on my shelf for years now and I haven’t got around to it – but I will definitely want to read this one too, I love the premise!

  4. […] review of The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel […]

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