The Post-Birthday World, like many of Lionel Shriver's novels, manages to defy the reader's expectations both in its construction and its central thesis -- that a life can change drastically based upon one split-second decision. This is no rom-com, and while it might feel like Sliding Doors, there's little beyond the premise, that to act or not to act (and in Shriver's novel, it's very much an action that splits the protagonist's life into two distinct futures vs. happenstance, Gwyneth missing the tube or not missing the tube), in that one moment can change your life forever.
Irina Galina McGovern, children's book illustrator and common-law wife of Lawrence, both American ex-patriots living in London, against her better judgment, goes for a birthday dinner with the infamous, rakish, handsome professional snooker player, Ramsay. Lawrence is away on business. They have a standing birthday dinner date -- but it used to be a couple's thing. Ramsay's wife, Jude, was a collaborator of Irina's, and when their marriage fell apart, it fell to Lawrence and Irina to entertain Ramsay (who'd always pick up the cheque) on his birthday.
The story splits into two over a kiss: something much more than a birthday peck on the cheek, a knee-shaking, earth-shattering, fall-in-love-on-a-street-corner kind of kiss, that will determine two very different futures for our Irina. If she kisses Ramsay, she says good-bye to her lovely life with Lawrence; if she doesn't kiss him, she would be denying herself the chance to feel passionate love, one that involves great, great sex.
As each chapter vacillates between the two realities, each relationship breaks down and apart for different reasons. Love becomes deconstructed through the everyday reality of what it means to make a choice to be with someone. Irina's not a woman who can live without a man yet she isn't an anti-feminist character -- she's someone who has always prized life with someone above life on her own. Her past butts up against her future in various places throughout the novel: a self-obsessed Russian dancer of a mother; a life that she left behind in the States; the need to assimilate in some ways to her new life in London.
In a way, Irina is always in relation to something, to someone -- whether it's her art (and the forward momentum of her career) or the two men in her life. The chapters that deal with her life with Lawrence, are deemed "safe" -- he works for a think tank, is intelligent, but he's also controlling in strange and obstinate ways, turning his moral eye upon a drink in the afternoon, calling her a "moron" every now and again. And it's a relationship without passion. For years, Lawrence hasn't kissed her, I mean, really kissed her, and Irina misses this desperately. When she asks if they can't get married, his utterly crushing response is, "okay."
Her relationship, and subsequent marriage to Ramsay, is the polar opposite, even when it runs along the same time line -- Shriver is careful to keep the details just the same so the book does veer off and the reader gets lost but she also makes the two storylines distinct enough that you truly get a sense of how disparate Irina's life becomes from that fateful moment -- it's passionate, vibrant, even violent (with wicked fights; not fists), and full of absolutely fantastic sex and happy moments (when the two aren't battling).
Two sides of the same coin, Irina remains the same person, the same character, but the subtle changes in her that you see when she's with either man bring her sharply into focus throughout the novel. Success means different things in either of her worlds and aspects of her personality get lost in either relationship. Shriver is keen to point out that love is sometimes separate from sex and other times as tangled as your bodies get. She writes of mature, intelligent, adult relationships -- and she's the only author with her sort of aesthetic, her brutal honesty, her ability to make things palatable even when you dislike so many of the characters and their decisions, but still keep you utterly engaged as a writer. Irina is flawed, deeply, and you are the more interested to read each chapter for this reason.
There's no doubt in my mind that Shriver is one of my favourite working novelists. I adored So Much For That, especially in light of my own health issues, and the very essence of her writing always boils down to one thing for me -- if we can harken back to my second-year university course on existentialism -- Shriver writes so very convincingly of the human condition that I would challenge anyone to find a contemporary writer better. It seems she tackles an issue with each of her books, plants it solidly in a plot that would seem tepid to a lesser novelist, and while the themes might be love, relationships, sex and marriage, you know instantly that you aren't reading the Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult versions of reality. There's depth and heft to Shriver's sharp intellect and the piercing nature of her pen ensures that no characters comes out unscathed.
In the end, it's up to the reader to imply, in a way, which was the right choice for Irina Galina to make, but the ending is just so satisfactory, and being a woman, I know what kind of relationship I'd prefer, but I don't want to spoil it -- it's actually worth getting through the 500-odd pages. And it's not often someone in my particular situation would have the patience to read a) a book this long and b) be willing to give up precious bits of sleep (like the hours between the feeding at 3 AM and the 6 AM feeding; it wouldn't have mattered, I'm on so much prednisone that sleep is hard to come by anyway, I'm no martyr, I'm just on meds) just to finish it.
READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge. Yes, another one bites the dust or, rather, another book is banished to the magic box in the basement that every single guest coming into my home is forced to go through. My high school friends brought brunch over today and left with over 15 books between them. Go baby go! There will actually be space for dust to collect on my shelves by Christmas (if I have anything to say about it).