Friday, January 8, 2010

Review: The Post-Birthday World

The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver's 2007 "what-if" tale, hinges on a single moment in the life of children's book illustrator Irina McGovern. Irina, an American living in London with her long-time partner Lawrence, is spending an evening out with snooker star Ramsey Acton on his birthday when she's struck by an overwhelming desire to kiss him. From that point in the narrative, Irina's story is told in alternating chapters — one storyline in which she kisses Ramsey and the other in which she does not.

In the version in which Irina kisses Ramsey, she leaves Lawrence and embarks on the snooker circuit with the charming Ramsey, following him to tournaments all over the world and failing to get her illustration assignments in on time. The alternate story sees her remaining with Lawrence, a boring terrorism expert, and renewing her devotion to him. Set in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Princess Diana's death, September 11, and unrest in Northern Ireland all play in to the story, with different responses from Irina in each version.

The idea of a "what-if" story isn't anything new, but in telling the two possible outcomes of Irina's life, Shriver has written a jewel of a book with compelling characters and intricate plots. The alternating chapters feature many of the same events — such as Christmas in New York with Irina's domineering mother, a snooker tournament, and a literary awards ceremony — turned on their heads, and the same lines are often repeated, but different characters say them. Every major choice brings with it both good and bad consequences — in one version, Irina wins a major award, in the other she doesn't, in one version Ramsey wins a major tournament, in another he doesn't, and on and on. While we'll never know what could have happened if we chose something differently, and it's waste of time to consider the path we didn't take, it's to our benefit that Shriver decided to do that here.


  1. I consider this one of my most favorite books. Shriver's a talented writer, and she just shook my world with this one. [I wrote a review of the book here, if you're so inclined.]

    I'm loving your site, your books. Have a great week!

  2. And I like yours as well! I think we've got pretty similar taste in books. Thanks for the read/follow!