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.