THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver


I know I am really enjoying a book when I find myself thinking about it at odd times throughout the day (in the shower, while walking the dog, etc.) and trying to cram in pages here and there whenever I can so that I can get back into the story as soon as possible.  Such was the case with the current EDIWTB online book club selection, The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. I have a feeling that this is a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Shriver’s inventive novel opens with Irina, its fortyish protagonist, facing a decision: should she remain faithful to Lawrence, her steadfast policy wonk partner of ten years, or should she kiss another man – Ramsey, a dashing yet immature snooker player? The first chapter ends at that crossroads, and from there, alternating chapters relate the two different worlds that could follow – the one in which she resists temptation, and the one in which she gives in.  Of course, Irina’s life turns out very differently depending on which road she takes, thus following the classic “what if…” daydream to its natural conclusion.

Shriver creates a detailed, convincing, flawed, yet rewarding life for Irina under both scenarios, which only makes reading this book more complex and almost tortuous, in a good way. I found it difficult to condemn either of her choices, or either of her partners.  The two men were often infuriating, yet also seemed to redeem themselves in often surprising ways.  Thus, if one of Shriver’s intentions was to convey the messy unpredictability of life and the danger of seeing things in black and white, she succeeded.

I love Shriver’s writing – eloquent, insightful, funny, rich. My copy is full of dog-eared pages marking passages I want to re-read – passages that were so well-written that they took my breath away.

Readers of The Post-Birthday World  will also notice the deftness with which Shriver sets up small parallels between the two worlds – lines of dialogue, for example, that are repeated in the two “competing” chapters (though sometimes spoken by two different characters), or identical conversations or plot points that are treated differently depending on which world we’re in (the Ramsey world or the Lawrence world).  Even something as simple as which dress Irina wears to the same event (or her partner’s reaction to that dress) takes on great significance in each post-birthday world, especially when contrasted to how it takes place in the other world.

While I was reading the book, one thing kept bothering me. I felt that Shriver had taken some license with Lawrence (as is her right, of course) – in one scenario, he seemed to have one personality, and in the other, he was very different. This bothered me because I felt like she was stacking the decks in favor of one choice vs. the other, that she was prejudicing the reader.

I was extremely lucky to be able to attend a book reading by Lionel Shriver last Friday night at Politics & Prose, and even luckier to be able to tell her in person about this reservation I had about the book. Her answer was perfect, and enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the book. As she explained, the book is not just about Irina; it’s also about the other characters in the book and how they are affected by Irina.  Her actions toward them – in this case, the reception she gives Lawrence when he returned from the business trip that provided her the opportunity to be alone with Ramsey, ultimately affected his path, as well as hers. Shriver intentionally played with how Irina’s actions changed the lives of the others in the book.

Here are some other things I learned at the book reading:

  • She wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, instead of writing about one post-birthday world in its entirety and then the next. This made it possible for her to set up the parallel narrative constructs that I mentioned above.
  • In writing the book, Shriver was interested in “the little stuff” – how who you are with affects not just your happiness but everything in your life, down to your relationship with your mother, what it’s like to go to the supermarket, your success in your career, etc.
  • The last chapter, in which Irina meets Lawrence for a drink at Club Gascon, is meant to conclude both post-birthday worlds, just like the first chapter opened them both. (Did you notice that when you were reading it?)
  • Shriver doesn’t like reading non-fiction and will only do it if “a gun is put to [her] head”.
  • Shriver was born in America and doesn’t speak with a British accent.
  • In England, “snooker” rhymes with “euchre”, while in America, it rhymes with “looker”.

I could go on and on about this book – it seems that every day I have new thoughts about it, new insights, and new appreciation for Shriver’s writing and the perfect construction of this wonderful book. But I have written enough and I’d love to hear what other EDIWTB readers have to say. So please add your comments below, and if you have any questions for Lionel Shriver that you’d like her to answer, add them to your comment or email them to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com and I will send them along to her. She has promised to answer them in a later post.

23 Comments

  • Paula
    March 10, 2008 - 8:19 am | Permalink

    I loved this book and devoured it…stayed up way too late one night to finish reading it. I will go back and read it again, because I also enjoyed the writing so much. I appreciated the information you shared from the author, I think it was “the little stuff” that made this book so rich and realistic…I do personally believe there are many potential parallel worlds out there for all of us!
    I thought that the author would have had to written each chapter side by side, because of the attention to detail, use of dialogue. I enjoyed those “parallel narrative constructs” very much.
    I thought that the last chapter was very clever, allowing us to read into the ending for both stories.
    I am curious about what the author’s original inspiration for the story was…and would she admit to having a “favorite” Irina? I thought she did a marvelous job of balancing both stories and underscoring the basic realities of facing ourselves and our choices in middle age…we can’t get everything we want, we can only struggle to stay true to ourselves. Thanks for the opportunity to participate!

  • March 10, 2008 - 9:42 am | Permalink

    I thought this book was fascinating and extremely well written. The characters launched themselves into my imagination and stayed there; I felt as though I knew they personally, almost as though I were them. And the concept is amazing, the author was completely successful in her attempt.
    But…that’s not to say I liked it. I had a hard time reading through all the pain and miscommunication and started having suspicions of my own that are certainly unwarrented. Again, this is a sign of how well done the book actually was. But I would like a third path, a path in which Irina and Lawrence see the problems in their relationship and actually both try to work on them – rather than only one or the other. Maybe this is the “happily ever after” story, but I don’t think so – it takes a lot of hard, hard work and difficult communication to make a relationship work, and that’s real life for many of us. I’d love to see what that might have looked like for I and L.
    I wrote a review of this book on my own blog as well: http://catherinemcniel.blogspot.com/2008/02/one-book-i-loved-two-books-i-didntor.html
    I’m definetly glad to have read this, and may actually have another go at it. Thanks so much for hosting this!

  • Stephanie
    March 10, 2008 - 9:45 am | Permalink

    I love LOVED this book. I think that last chapter was really amazing in that you just saw the ending for both, with really no idea one way or the other how it went. I think that the very idea that there are no “wrong” paths, only different ones that can ultimately take you to the same place is an interesting one and definitely something to think about.

  • March 10, 2008 - 10:19 am | Permalink

    I had a hard time with the format but I thoroughly enjoyed the characters. After reading the other comments I think I am going to go back and read it again.

  • March 10, 2008 - 10:44 am | Permalink

    I also loved this book. I read it about 9 months ago, but it is still very present in my mind. I have to say, at the time of reading, it was almost a little too close to home. Going through a hard time myself, (trying to embrace who I am now, and where life has led me), the idea of a parallel life was a little too much mind fodder.
    For me, the raw sexual urges which lead Irina away, were very raw and honest. I definitely felt like that decisive moment where she makes the choice to cheat was very real and something I could relate to.
    I love books which make me have an emotional response, even if it is a difficult one to work through.
    Also, I loved learning how to say (read) snooker! I was showing off the next morning to my British friends. 😉
    Thank you Lionel Shriver, I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Mholles
    March 10, 2008 - 11:17 am | Permalink

    I started out enjoying the book and sneaking the time to read it becuase I couldn’t wait to see what would happen and the writting is great. I’m in the middle now and it’s really bogged down for me. Irina is whiney, and both Lawrence and Ramsey are unlikeable. I hate that in both scenarios Irina has tied her whole sense of self to one man or the other. I think I’m going to skip the rest of the chapters and read the last one. It better turn out how I want it to!

  • March 10, 2008 - 11:29 am | Permalink

    I had a hard time getting into the book, but the interest is definitely picking up and I’m almost done with it now.

  • March 10, 2008 - 11:32 am | Permalink

    Would it make sense to say that I liked reading “The Post-Birthday World,” but I didn’t like the book? On the positive side, I thought the characters were vivid and real, and Shriver did an excellent job developing them. She is a wonderful writer with obvious skill, which is what made me keep reading. I was definitely interested enough in the characters to want to find out what happened to them.
    I think my views are similar to Catherine’s – I was increasingly frustrated at the lack of communication between Irina, Lawrence, and Ramsey. I also found all three of them unlikable (although I realize this is not a legitimate reason for not liking a book – sometimes the most horrid people make the best characters.) But because of this, I found it hard to champion for any one of them, and felt that they deserved what they got. Ramsey especially seemed like a abusive man, and I was never fully convinced of a reason why Irina should stay with him. He continually verbally and emotionally abused her, and failed to show any reason why she would be attracted to him. I felt like his death at the end was a ploy to make us feel sorry for him, but it didn’t make up for his years of neglect of Irina & his relationship with her.
    When I first heard about the book, I thought, “That reminds me of Sliding Doors” (the movie.) After reading it, the two seem even more similar… maybe TOO similar. While the stimuli are different, the plots are very similar with the stay with the safe man who turns out to be having an affair/ or do something daring. I liked Shriver’s parallels between the two stories, but I wish they had been even MORE different.
    Again to agree with Catherine, I think that my strong opinions & time spent thinking about the book speaks to its effectiveness. As I said, Shriver is a good writer… I just think she could have pushed her plot further.
    One more thing – I found the book-within-a-book “Frame and Match” to be a little hard to take. Shriver basically summarizes her own book & the philosophy behind it, then gives herself an international prize. Hmm.

  • Haleh
    March 10, 2008 - 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed the first half of the book. Then, despite Shriver’s beautiful prose and descriptive passages, I lost interest in the characters. I wasn’t rooting for any of them, I found them all to be self-involved and dull (as people) and I couldn’t understand what Irina saw in Ramsey, other than a physical attraction. My frustration with the characters made it difficult to get through the book because I didn’t care what happened to them.

  • Melissa
    March 10, 2008 - 2:08 pm | Permalink

    First, I need to say that I feel conflicted writing this review. I loved the concept and idea behind “The Post-Birthday World” and thought that it was very well written. However, I did not love the book itself. For me, it was a slow read and I found it hard to connect with and sympathize with the main characters (Irina, Lawrence and Ramsey). On the positive side, it was very thought-provoking — I found myself reviewing my own life and wondering if I had made different decisions what the outlook would have been.

  • Jenn J
    March 10, 2008 - 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book when I finished it! In the beginning, I loved it. I thought it was such a great idea, the way Shriver wrote it. And I think that my inability to decide how I feel about the book is a credit to Shriver’s writing. I hated the men in the book. I didn’t want Irina to end up with either one of them. Usually I find myself rooting for a character to choose one person over another, but I didn’t care for either of them. That said, I did enjoy the book, Shriver’s books have a way of sucking me in!

  • TLB
    March 10, 2008 - 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. In fact, it renewed my faith in modern literature. To be honest, (!) I could not get into it for the first hundred pages or so. I actually put it down and read another book recommended on this blog (the Reluctant Fundamentalist, also excellent) then picked up the Shriver book again and became addicted.
    What I loved: it is so readable and so intelligent – felt good not to have to pick between one or the other! The prose is superb; loved the humor, the references to the “little stuff”, the momentum of the plot, the characters and their development. Loved bits like she woke up in “amniotic oblivion” ; and her hands were “cadverously cold”
    I kept thinking: “There must be a moral to the story” (I am not sure there is, or what it is). In the most turbulent passages (big fights with Ramsey, affair with Bethany) I scribbled that the moral of the story is that we are either destroyed or we self-destruct. I guess this is a book about choices, forks in the road, etc etc. It has such a universal theme, yet the writing is so personal and memorable.
    You know the writing is good when you are squirming while reading: the dinner out with the three of them at the hotel in Bournemouth comes to mind; so do the scenes in Brighton Beach. Also memorable : the contrast between the frantic, breathless affair with Ramsey and the quiet unraveling of her life with Lawrence.
    A great read!

  • jas
    March 10, 2008 - 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I also liked the way the Post Birthday World was writen and would like to read Lionel Shriver’s other books. But I did not like the main characters of the book -Irina seemed too dependent and passive. And both Ramsey and Lawrence were very controlling. I wish that Irina could have shown more independence. What I found most fustrating was Irina’s need to second guess all her decisions and keep going over her choices again and again.

  • Jill
    March 11, 2008 - 12:20 am | Permalink

    I am glad to hear some others found it hard to get into, because I am about at page 200 and am just starting to enjoy it. The reviews here encourage me to stick with it.
    For someone who is in a relationship and having challenges (is it possible that anyone is in a relationship is not having challenges?), I’ve found it incredibly depressing.
    I also have had trouble believing that Irina and Lawrence would have befriended Ramsay. From the dialogue she gives Ramsay, he’s like a pre-Henry Higgins Eliza Doolittle, and Lawrence is . . . well, a Henry Higgins. Maybe that’s the point, I don’t know. But it bothered me.

  • Len
    March 11, 2008 - 12:46 am | Permalink

    Like a couple of the other readers, I started out really liking this book…and then I got to Chapter 3. It wasn’t that that chapter was particularly bad, it was just by that point I was “over” the concept, To me the chapters were too long and too overwrought.
    Yes, as someone pointed out, Shriver did a good job parsing out the nuances that make all our relationships so interesting. But I started to care less and less about these characters and their lives.
    While I wanted to believe, as TLB mentioned, that this book was about choices, it seemed that the characters focused on the big choices (Ramsey vs. Lawrence) instead of the little choices that make up day to day life.
    Like Jenn J, I didn’t like either of the men, but I didn’t like any of the women either. Where some readers saw things like rawness and honesty, I saw people acting like they are merely swept along by the tides and allowing themselves be unquestioningly swept along. And even when a character (usually Irina) questioned how she ended up where she was, it usually seemed to result in a mental shrugging of the shoulders and a resignation to what the character sees as inevitable, rather than a real inflection point that can redefine a person’s life.
    In short, the inventive concept and solid interesting writing were wasted on characters who all left me cold.

  • March 11, 2008 - 2:10 am | Permalink

    I too am only about halfway. I can’t seem to stay awake to read it. I think the concept is cool, and like how the author repeats some of the same scenes and dialogue but from different POV or people. I will finish, especially after hearing about the last chapter, but I’m also starting to dislike the characters a bit. I can relate to wanting the excitement after a long marriage, but I agree Irina’s a bit too dependent on her men for me to relate.

  • Nancy
    March 11, 2008 - 4:09 pm | Permalink

    First of all, I loved the book. That said, I work as a librarian and when I recommended this book to a patron, any patron, they came back with a “Why did you like it and why did you think I would like it” look on their face. I felt Irina grows and matures so with Ramsey that couldn’t take place with Lawrence.And through him I found that she found herself. Like her or not, like what she did or not, it was for herself that she did it. The sex was good, the life style different, may be she had to be shaken (not stirred) out of complacency and into the real world. It reminded me of 20-30-40 somethings who live without a care and therefore without caring. Ramsey woke her up. And that’s okay. I still recommend the book to patrons. I’m used to the looks!

  • Amy
    March 11, 2008 - 11:51 pm | Permalink

    It looks as if my brilliant post was lost, so here goes a medicore second try. Couldn’t put it down. LOVED loved it. I related to Irina on a lot of levels, and know that it’s becasue we all feel,”holy shit, did I make the right choice”? I liked the messiness of both scenarios, especially as they played off one another in their sequential paragraphs. I was so sad when I finished the book because I might have been a bit obsessed. There were lines that took my breath away and made me cry in the familiarity and solidarity. Someone gets it. Full disclosure: I have pneumonia, so this might not make sense and I know that MY writing sucks. Bottomline…LOVED this book. Cannot wait to try her others. Thanks for including me.

  • March 12, 2008 - 9:20 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read this one, yet. But, it is in my tbr pile at home. I love the premise of the book.
    “I know I am really enjoying a book when I find myself thinking about it at odd times throughout the day…”
    I know exactly what you mean! It’s so much fun when you find a book like that.

  • Jude
    March 12, 2008 - 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I should have loved this book: I lived in London during the 47th year of Ramsey Acton’s life, it was clear from the first page that the author has the way with words that I find more dazzling than any other talent, and she was even nice enough to name a minor character after me.
    But I didn’t. As a technical matter, while I liked the writing, I thought the continued parallelism was a tad too neat, clever and tidy. I also long for the day when a fictional character can exist without planning a trip to Manhattan in mid-September, 2001.
    Mostly, though, I didn’t like Irina, who I thought was a whiny, self-indulgent malcontent who couldn’t (literally) take a trip to the grocery store without ruminating on what that trip meant to her love life. Introspection and reflection are well and good, but sometimes, I fear, a bag of crisps is just a bag of crisps.
    I also thought that the men were stereotypes–well-drawn but obvious (as were there eventual fates)–and over 500 pages, Irina’s constant scorn of or disappointment in them grew tiresome. While Sarah G is correct that characters need not be lovable, I find it difficult to enjoy a book when there is no one for whom to root.
    As Gayle said, there were parts of the book that were so beautiful that I read them twice. Writing that good is always worth reading, and I will definitely seek out more of the author’s work in the future. I’m afraid “the post-birthday world” just didn’t do it for me.

  • Amanda
    March 13, 2008 - 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I loved this book. It took me a while to get into it at first, but after I did I found it hard to put down. The writing was wonderful and the characters drew me in to the story so much that I didn’t want it to end. I liked the concept of switching back and forth between each scenario in each chapter and how events and dialogue were a common thread between some of the chapters. This is the first book by Lionel Shriver that I have read, but I have had WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN on my TBR list for a while. I might just have to pick it up soon!

  • March 27, 2008 - 2:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s my turn to pick out book suggestions for my April book club meeting and after reading your post I will definitely add The Post Birthday World to my list!

  • Pingback: Everyday I Write the Book » WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver

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