The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
Irina and Lawrence have been together for 10 years and have yet to get married. Most of the time that’s okay with Irina, most of the time she is happy with their traditions – or are they ruts? – but sometimes, she gets a bit fed up with it all. One year when Lawrence is going out of town, he pushes Irina to make plans with their acquaintance Ramsey for Ramsey’s birthday. Going out together on Ramsey’s birthday had been a tradition for them when he was married to Irina’s former partner Judith, but Lawrence had always got on better with Ramsey – a professional snooker player – than Irina had. Now that Irina is no longer partners with Judith and Ramsey is single, Judith thinks things might be a bit awkward. Throw in Lawrence not being able to come along as a buffer, and she is incredibly hesitant to make dinner plans with Ramsey, but she is eventually convinced to do so. While at dinner, Irina starts to feel something for Ramsey, a hint of desire. When they return to his flat for drinks and some weed, she has an overwhelming urge to kiss him.
And she does. But also she doesn’t.
The majority of “The Post-Birthday World” is given over to showing what Irina’s life would be like if she kissed Ramsey, versus what her life would be like if she did not.
Shriver is not the world’s most subtle author; in fact, she nearly hits the reader over the head with her point. She’s also pretty cynical about both romantic and family relationships. Obviously no relationship is perfect, but it was somewhat depressing how rocky Irina’s relationships ended up no matter what she did. And nobody was close to their parents: Irina’s mother was overbearing and a bit crazy and Lawrence and Ramsey’s parents were both out of the picture – Lawrence’s because they were gauche and he didn’t care much for them, Ramsey’s because they disapproved of his life as a snooker player. Profoundly negative attitudes about, well, everything can really turn me off in a book if the characters aren’t at least somewhat sympathetic.
Luckily, I actually did find all of these characters at least a little sympathetic, as opposed to the characters in the first Shriver book I read, who I simply couldn’t be bothered to care about. They weren’t just blithely callous, they actually did care somewhat about how what they were doing impacted one another, even if they did decide to simply do what was best for themselves anyway.
Really, though, I think what kept me fascinated by this book was the concept. I loved how Shriver had Irina go many of the same places and even have many of the same conversations in the two stories, but with different twists depending on her earlier choices and actions.
Although Shriver still occasionally bothered me with her need to hit me over the head with her dark view of most relationships, I did very much enjoy the book overall and, after reading “The Post-Birthday World” I am definitely interested in reading more of her work.