Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

This is an intellectually interesting book that never quite engages the emotions. While it is unfair to ask for a second We Need To Talk About Kevin, this book needed a little of that novel's passion.

Irina McGovern is a children's book illustrator living in London with her long-term partner Lawrence Trainer, who himself works in a think tank specializing in terrorism. They have a fugal, predictable, comfortable life that isn't bad, exactly, but lacks any crackle of passion. They are not-quite-friends with a more volatile couple, Jude (a children's book author who works with Irina) and her husband Ramsey, a professional snooker player. Lawrence is fascinated by Ramsey's fame, and Jude is desperate to avoid spending Ramsey's birthday alone with him. Out of such dismal circumstances grows a tradition of dinner with Ramsey on his birthday, even after Jude divorces him.

One fateful year, Lawrence is out of the country but he pushes Irina to invite Ramsey to dinner anyway. Initially she is reluctant, having firmly considered him to be Lawrence's friend, and uncertain they would have anything to say to each other. Too much wine, too much weed, and Irina finds herself making a move on Ramsey.

This set up takes too long, because it is only the set up. At this point, Irina's live splits into the world where she kisses Ramsey, and the world where she stays faithful in deed to Lawrence. The book proceeds through parallel chapters, as Irina's life follows the different tracks. As demanded by the nature of a novel, the two different lives are not entirely unrecognizable, and the alternating chapters mirror each other rather than take off entirely.

Which sort of undermines the effectiveness of the conceit. Two different life paths spring from a single decision--but they aren't really all that different. In the life she leads with Lawrence, she remains mostly safe, mostly undramatic. Even when she finally catches Lawrence cheating on her, and learns the affair has been going on for five years, she never really rages. Her emotional life mostly stays within a small range.

The life she lives with Ramsey is more exciting, and she has more experiences, more passion, higher highs and lower lows--but it isn't fundamentally different in its incidents from the life with Lawrence. At the end of five years, in one life she loses Lawrence to his affair, and learns that the "safe" life was never really safe. At the end of five years, she learns Ramsey has spent all his money, and he dies of cancer, leaving her a widow with debts. The last chapter of the book is written so that it applies to either life--again, negating the idea that her life changed based on the decision she made. It didn't, really, make any difference in the not-so-long-run. So did it matter which she chose?

Maybe that's reassuring--that no matter what decisions we make, our lives are going to be roughly the same. Maybe it's an argument that Irina's personality was the same, so her life shaped itself similarly. Like the popcorn that is a daily routine of her life with Lawrence--always the same bowl before dinner, although she changes the spices.

To be completely candid, I didn't read every word of every page of this book. It was a very very long book, and once you caught on to the structure, the process got a bit wearying. In this case, I blame it on the character of Irina, who never really blazes to life. She remains essentially the same, measured and unimpassioned person through both timelines. Other than making that one decision, her life seemed to happen to her, and so she never really grabbed the reins of the book either. Things happened to her, and they happened in slightly different order, or with slightly different emphasis, but they never really seemed very different in either life.

It might make an interesting book to discuss, but I think I would have enjoyed it better if it were shorter and much punchier.

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