Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver — 544 pgs

When Irina McGovern and her longtime partner Lawrence Trainer agree to host the handsome and cocky Ramsey Acton for his annual birthday dinner, the repercussions that spin wildly from that night form a double-stranded narrative that features the two very different paths of Irina’s life. Though Irina and Lawrence have a comfortable and sedate life together, theirs is a love that is devoid of passion and spontaneity. It’s only when Irina decides to be kind to Lawrence’s snooker playing pal Ramsey by taking him to dinner for a birthday celebration while Lawrence is away that Irina begins to see Ramsey’s charms and attentiveness. What happens next is shocking. In one strand of narrative, Irina succumbs to Ramsey’s charms, which has the effect of forever altering her life with Lawrence and saddling her with a man who’s not only obsessed with his sport, but with Irina herself. In the alternating chapters, a different future plays out for Irina, who this time does not melt into Ramsey’s embrace. In this very contrasting tale, Irina continues onward with Lawrence, realizing over time that he’s not the man she once thought him to be. As successive chapters undulate between a life with Ramsey and a life with Lawrence, the dichotomy of a life lived with the passionate and slightly off-balanced Ramsay is contrasted with a life lived with the passionless and stringent Lawrence is revealed. But it’s not always easy to judge which life has the upper hand, for both men have attributes that are wonderful but are sometimes terrible as well. In this utterly fascinating dual storyline, a woman lives out two very different lives, all the while wondering if the choices she’s made will ultimately ruin her or reward her.

When I started reading Lionel Shriver’s work this year, naturally I gravitated towards We Need To Talk About Kevin, as I had heard some very scary and impressive things about it. It was a book that knocked me backwards with its force, and I was hooked. Next I read So Much for That for a TLC Book Tour, and was once again impressed with Shriver’s capacity for wit and wounding all in the same narrative. When my book club Books, Babes, and Bordeaux decided on this for our selection, I was beside myself with joy. I can’t seem to get enough of the woman’s writing and was eager to see what she would do with this very unusually constructed and intriguing tale. While decidedly less aggressive than the other two Shriver books I read, this book had a personal impact that I couldn't ignore, for how many of us can’t relate to the pondering of a life that we may have either narrowly avoided or artlessly embraced?

While Irina is living with Lawrence, there’s a noticeable lack of commitment in their relationship, a fact that endlessly niggles at Irina, though she prefers not to think about it directly for fear of disappointment. Lawrence is steadfast and loyal but he’s a decidedly unromantic partner. I cringed with embarrassment when I discovered the sexual aspects of the couple’s lives and felt so humbly sorry for Irina that I was uncomfortable with Lawrence from that point forward. It almost seemed that Lawrence was more of a strict father to Irina in lieu of a real paramour to her. When Irina’s story bifurcates into two separate storylines, the sections dealing with Lawrence made me feel just as hopeless as Irina felt about the prospects of their relationship together. Hear me out. Lawrence was not a bad guy, just an uninspired and bossy one. He doted on Irina and showered her with compliments on her work, but their relationship was just so devoid of passion that Lawrence was a constant source of annoyance to me. As the story of Lawrence and Irina plays out, it’s one of endless frustration and unmet desires, a story that felt hopeless in all its trappings.

In Irina’s other life, as it were, she has kissed Ramsey and must leave Lawrence behind to begin a new life with him. This is a life of unadulterated passion and indulgence of every whim. But there are problems with this life too, for Ramsey is a very egocentric man who is only capable of being charming when he’s being adored. The fights and arguments that Irina and Ramsey engage in are horrendous and terrible, for Ramsey is also an intensely jealous and selfish man. It seems there’s a price to pay for passion, and though Ramsey and Irina have a tremendous chemistry and the sex and intimacy are off the charts, living with the man causes Irina to totter between helpless states of intense joy and satisfaction and boundless states of discomfort and alienation. Another problem is that Ramsey cannot and will not ever discuss anything of importance other than snooker, a game that Irina finds dull and boring after her first initial flush of appreciation for it. I disliked Ramsey a great deal, for within him was the capacity for great cruelty and indifference that was never satisfied. It was a life that was full of inconsistency and ego-stroking for Irina, and though there was immense gratification for her, there was also abuse and heartbreak.

What I found so interesting about this book was Shriver’s capacity for understanding the human condition in all its nuances. She poses some pressing questions to her readers by inveigling them in Irina’s story. Is it better to love or to be loved? When we give up a life in which we’re not happy, who’s to say we’re making a change that will make a difference in the long run? Even more profoundly, this book forced me to ask questions about my own life. Has there ever been a time when I chose a direction in my life that took me to unparalleled new ground? In the deepest parts of my heart, I know I have, and luckily for me, my new directions were a lot more rewarding than Irina’s ever were. It was with great skill that Shriver plundered the emotional closet of my life and her characters’ lives, letting the skeletons out for all to see. The book’s resolution crystallized the unpredictability of those decisions that we make in the heat of the moment that can change our lives forever.

Shriver is well on her way to becoming my favorite author, and part of what I love about her writing is not only its exceptional artfulness but her ability to morph each story she tells into its own new and spectacular shape. No two are the same and no two deal with the same issues. This is a longer book, so those looking to read it should make some time for it, but be aware that you will be well rewarded for doing so. It was a very contemplative and erudite road to have traveled, and I enjoyed it immensely. A great and very smart read. Highly recommended!

21 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Such an interesting review! Too bad we couldn't take parts of people and combine them into one!

reviewsbylola said...

I want to read this one so badly. I am contemplating moving it to the top of my TBR list!

Steph said...

This is the one "mainstream" Shriver novel that I have yet to read! I am sure you'll be excited to hear that many of her older titles (pre-Kevin) are being reissued, so you'll have lots more Shriver to look forward to.

Also, I thought your comment about how Shriver's writing is witty but wounding was very astute and spot on. Great review as always!

Jenners said...

I just loved this book! It was my first one by Shriver and I was hooked. I loved how both choices had good in them and bad. Now my question for you is how do you think it ended? I remember being quite clear in my mind about which way Irina really went when I read it, but it has grown fuzzy over time. I think I want to read this one again someday when I've forgotten much of it. It was a delicious read. Great review!

bermudaonion said...

Wow, it sounds like this is a very thought provoking book. I haven't tried Shriver's work yet and had this one at SIBA, but ended up giving it away. Darn!

Sandy Nawrot said...

You know that I love this book with all my heart. It would definitely be in my top ten ever list. There isn't a soul alive that hasn't come to a fork in the road and wondered. Plus, Shriver is just so damned smart.

Kailana said...

I am very curious about this book. I have had it out from the library before, but didn't have time to actually read it.

Amy said...

Your fantastic review has me regretting delaying reading any of Lionel Shriver's books. I have So Much For That on my shelf and want to read We Need To Talk About Kevin but now I think I must read all of Shriver's books since I love what you've said about her writing.

I wasn't sure what I thought about The Post-Birthday World you're reviewing here since it sounds a little fantasy-like or just odd. Then I read your paragraph that starts with "...Shriver’s capacity for understanding the human condition in all its nuances" and goes on to talk about the questions Shriver poses to her readers about life and choices etc. This book makes you think about the story and its characetrs but also about your own life. These are the best kind of books I think!

Again, now, I feel like I have to read all of Shriver's books! You have great taste in books, Heather and write amazing reviews.

Thank you!

Vasilly said...

OMG! I've read dozens of reviews for this book, but your review makes me want to read it now! Fingers crossed that my library has the ebook of this.

Trisha said...

You write the most wonderful reviews!

Jenny said...

If you were going to pick a book to make me love Lionel Shriver, what one would you pick? I've been sort of catching up on prize-win-y type books of the past decade recently, and I think Lionel Shriver should be next up.

Aths said...

I've heard so much about Lionel Shriver's works that I can't wait to read this one and the Kevin book! Fabulous review and you spotlight some though-provoking questions there!

Suko said...

This does sound like the work of a very talented author from a very talented book reviewer. I need to read a book by Shriver! Terrific review!

Harvee said...

This books gives a lot to think about and the dual stories are definitely interesting. Very nice review.

nomadreader said...

I read So Much for That last year and loved it. I hope to read We Need to Talk About Kevin soon (before the end of the year), but this one will be near the top of my list after that. Excellent review.

Buried In Print said...

Chances are that you're already following these but, if you're not, do check out the BBC's podcasts of their World Book Club; they recently re-ran the one with Lionel Shriver and now I remember why I wanted to read every word that she's written!

TheBookGirl said...

Great review Heather!

I was so disturbed by We Have to Talk About Kevin, that I never picked up another one of her books despite the fact that I did think that one was well-written.

You have convinced me to give her another try and not penalize her (and me) for the fact that the subject matter of Kevin was so hard to deal with.

Darlene said...

I really need to read one of her books. I got We Need to Talk about Kevin because of your review and now I want to read this one too. I think it's time to crack the cover on one of them. Which should I read first?

Lisa said...

A couple of us in my book club read "We Need To Talk" and wanted the club to read it. But it was just too dark for some of them. This one might be a great way to get them to read Shriver; I know I'm going to read it!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

ooh, Sandy told us about this novel when we saw her in September (was a book group pick for you?). Such an interesting construct, with the two storylines - I wonder if we find which one is reality?

I have to admit that I have yet to read any of Lionel Shriver's work ... seems you're really enjoying making your way through her list!

Jenny said...

I've been wanting to read this after Sandy had such great things to say about it. I actually have not read this author yet and knowing she's becoming a favorite of yours really makes me want to read it!! I'm adding this to my MUST READ list for next year... (as though that actually means anything, LOL!!)

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