The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

When we did the great magazine cleanout of 2008, I pulled out every single EW book review that was of interest to me and wrote the titles and authors down on my To Be Read List. I noticed that EW listed as its top fiction book for the year a book called The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. It might be true that most people haven’t heard of it, but I did remember ordering it back when I worked for the public library, so I put it on hold, and over the past week, I finally got around to reading it.

The setup is this: Two couples (Lawrence and Irina; Ramsey and Jude) regularly get together on Ramsey’s birthday, July 6th. After Ramsey and Jude divorce, Lawrence and Irina continue to spend his birthday with him, mostly because of their feelings of duty and pity. One year, Ramsey’s birthday rolls around and Lawrence happens to be out of town, but encourages Irina not to neglect Ramsey. And so, Irina and Ramsey have a boozy dinner that ends at his house. As he teaches her to play snooker, she feels a powerful urge to kiss him.

And here the book diverges . . . in alternating chapters, we find out what her life would be like if she did kiss him and if she didn’t. The stories parallel in a clever manner, with opposite things taking place in each version of her life. I told Andrea about this book, and she said, “Well, that sounds like something that is right up your alley.” And I would agree, except for one thing: I kind of hate Irina. Which is a pretty big problem. Irina seems content to let things happen around her, to be treated badly by both of these two men, to refuse to make decisions for herself. Over the course of the story, I grew to like her a little bit more, but there was definitely a point at which I just wanted her to forget about both of these guys and make a new and different life for herself somewhere (anywhere) else. I chose at that point to keep reading, and I am glad I did, but this was not an easy or comfortable book to read at any point. By the end, even the characters I did like managed to do things to make me despise them.

And so, I don’t recommend this book, exactly. If you think it sounds like something you might enjoy, please do read it, because I would love to have someone with whom I could discuss it. It kept my interest, and I learned a lot about snooker, but it was kind of a downer. It was well-crafted, though, and I would be interested to read other books by Lionel Shriver. (Has anyone read We Need to Talk About Kevin?)

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