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Review: The Post-Birthday World

At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver because I’m not a huge fan of chick lit.  The book starts out sounding much like the relationship drama books I tend to avoid; however, I kept with it because I was intrigued by the structure and premise of the book.  I’m glad I did, because the book turned out to be much more complicated than I initially thought.

The book starts out with children’s book illustrator Irina McGovern, a middle-aged woman living in London with her boyfriend Lawrence.  Each year Lawrence and Irina have a birthday dinner with an acquaintance, Ramsey Acton.  One significant birthday Lawrence cannot go and Irina has dinner with Ramsey alone.  At the end of the first chapter, after their dinner, Irina is presented with a choice: given into her strange desire to kiss Ramsey or leave and go back to her secure life with Lawrence.

The subsequent chapters alternate perspective — one showing what would happen with the kiss and one showing what would happen without.  Each set of chapters covers the same period of time, so you can see how Irina’s life might have turned out in two different ways. That’s pretty cool by itself, but what makes it even better is that that Shriver continually makes parallels between the two lives.  The same line of dialogue would come up in the complementary chapters but be spoken by different characters or a similar situation would come up, but it would involve a different supporting character.  I felt like I was in on a joke while I was reading, while also getting a much fuller picture of the person Irina could be.

Something that frustrated me about the book was Shriver’s tendency to over-tell the story.  In a writing class I took, my professor told us that a good writer would show something, not just tell is.  In this book, I felt like Shriver was constantly telling me what to think, rather than letting the characters illustrate what I should feel.  I got Shriver’s messages from the book loud and clear because her characters and scene setting are so good; I didn’t need to be told the things I had already figured out.

In that sense, Shriver sums up the point of the book pretty succinctly herself.  In both futures, Irina writes and illustrates a children’s book that is nominated for an award.  In one, the book wins; in the other, the book loses.  When trying to explain the point of one book to Ramsey, Irina says,

The idea is that you don’t have only one destiny.  Younger and younger, kids are pressed to decide what they want to do with their lives, as if everything hinges on one decision.  But whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides.  You’re dealing with a set of trade-offs, and not one perfect course in comparison to which all the others are crap. … There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future.  But I didn’t want to have one bad future and one good.  In both, everything is all right, really.  Everything is all right.

I don’t think sharing that is much of a spoiler, because I think the way the book is written leads you to believe things will work out.  There were points when I preferred Irina’s life with Ramsey, and times I thought Lawrence would have been the right choice.  I won’t tell you which destiny Irina ends up with, but I will say that I was satisfied after finishing this book.  I’d recommend it for people who like some of the drama of chick lit, but like books that feel more challenging to read.

Other Reviews: The 3 R’s; Reading Matters; Shelf Life; The Bluestockings Society;

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Elizabeth January 16, 2009, 4:32 pm

    The premise of 2 futures reminds me of the film Sliding Doors with G. Paltrow, which was a pretty good movie.
    I’ll put this on my TBR.

  • Florinda January 16, 2009, 5:17 pm

    Thanks for linking to my review! This was one of my “books of the year” for 2008. My sister just read it, and didn’t like it nearly as much as I did – but we think it would be a great choice for a book discussion group.

  • Kim January 16, 2009, 5:20 pm

    Elizabeth: I just looked up Sliding Doors, and it looks interesting. I get the impression the movie is much less ambiguous than this book is.

    Florinda: I agree, there are a ton of things to talk about with this book. The structure, which life is “better,” what the ending means… it would be a good book club book.

  • Sandra January 16, 2009, 5:25 pm

    Is this really chick lit? I’ve never read any and I don’t want to. But I just finished We Need to Talk About Kevin by Shriver and that was a serious piece of literary fiction, and an excellent novel. I’m surprised to think she wrote something light or fluffy, I was looking forward to more of her work. I’ll have to look at more reviews of this book I guess before I write it off, thanks for reviewing it.

  • bermudaonion January 16, 2009, 5:33 pm

    I love the cover and from your review, I thought the book held a lot of promise, but I don’t like books that are overwritten.

  • Kim January 16, 2009, 7:11 pm

    Sandra: No, the book isn’t chick lit, that’s why I got it in the first place. The book just started out seeming chick lit-y, if that makes any sense. This book is light in the sense that it mostly deals with relationships, but it does so in a much more mature way and doesn’t work out in the fluffy way that most chick lit seems to. I’d read more reviews, and definitely don’t write it off because I did enjoy the book once I got into it.

    bermudaonion: I’m pretty touchy to books being overwritten, and realized I’ve had that criticism of a lot of books lately. I’d at least try this one out for a bit if you get the chance, to see if your opinion on over-writtenness is the same as mine.

    Man, I just made up a bunch of words for these comments 🙂

  • raych January 16, 2009, 10:01 pm

    I feel the same way about We Need To Talk About Kevin. The writing was rough, but the story! The story stole my soul for a little bit (and when it gave it back, a piece was missing. Seriously, that book messed me up). Maybe she needs a ghost-writer, or a REALLY severe editor.

  • Steph January 16, 2009, 11:01 pm

    I’ve heard of Lionel Shriver several times before, but hadn’t decided either way whether to give her a shot. The name of this book would not have caused me to look twice at it, and I never would have picked it up, but your review has intrigued me. I’ll have to skim it before committing to see if the writing will drive me batty, but otherwise, I’m going to add this to the TBR pile.

  • Kim January 17, 2009, 11:00 am

    raych: I doubt this book is as serious as “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” but no doubt that Shriver can tell a good story.

    Steph: Skim it and see, because if the writing doesn’t bother you I think it’s a great book. The structure is cool, and the story and characters are intriguing.

  • Anastasia January 17, 2009, 12:24 pm

    Just stopping by to say that I’ve left you a Butterfly Award at my blog! 😀 (And that I hope you had a fun trip!)

  • Michelle January 17, 2009, 3:08 pm

    Sounds like a good one. I never finished We Need To Talk About Kevin because of the grim plot, but I did love her writing style..

  • Kim January 17, 2009, 8:06 pm

    Anastasia: Thank you!

    Michelle: The plot of this book isn’t that grim at all; some unpleasant things happen, but nothing so dark that it made me upset. If you liked her writing style, then I’m sure you’d like this book.

  • Joanne January 17, 2009, 9:36 pm

    Wow, this is a must-read for me. I love books that experiment with storyline structure. I’m really intrigued by the idea that a single incident can make out lives fork in two (or more) directions also, so this should be a very interesting read.
    Thanks for the wonderful review.

  • Dawn January 18, 2009, 2:45 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Lionel Shriver (who I keep thinking is a HE, based on HER name!)

    I’ve had *We Need to Talk About Kevin* on my wish list for a while …

  • Kim January 18, 2009, 4:24 pm

    Joanne: I love books that have interesting structures too, which is why I picked up the book. Shriver does a good job with spinning out the concept of a single choice, and the parallels that come of it are neat.

    Dawn: I know, I thought she was a he at first too. Dorky 🙂

  • Julie December 31, 2009, 9:42 am

    I bought this book yesterday at a used book store and am pretty excited about it. I thought We Need To Talk About Kevin was really good, and wanted to read this author again. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim January 1, 2010, 7:57 pm

      Julie: I haven’t read anything else, but I did enjoy this book a lot. The structure was very interesting.

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