Kelly's Reviews > The Post-Birthday World

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
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's review
Mar 26, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: fiction, brit-lit, romantical, po-mo, owned, 21st-century
Recommended for: all women, ever, particularly ones who have been around the block a time or two

Ostensibly the classic chick-lit, romcom, virtuous Victorian type story of the young lady who must choose between prudence, security and morality vs. passion and a "consuming love," the story does much more than that, and delves much deeper than the typical story of the kind would do. It is tempting to compare this to Sliding Doors, since the concept is the same. I.e.: one decision later, what happens in two alternate universes. One she chooses to stay with her safe, stable companion Lawrence, the other she chooses to throw caution to the wind and have a stoned, drunk kiss with a famous British snooker player (BTW: I freely admit I had no idea what snooker was. I'm American.) But this is done in a much more literary way. It is a chick lit subject with Serious Novel writing. I'm more apt to compare it to an estrogen packed version of Ian McEwan's style of writing than Sliding Doors. A single event/moral dilemma that changes the life of the protagonist, leading them into consequences they never would have dreamed possible for so small a thing.

There were so many lines in there that just rang so true to me. I undertook my normally hated practice of underlining things in a book, because I couldn't bear that I didn't remember them later on. That is, until I got too caught up in the story to care. But I'm going to put down a few that I did underline here just to give you an idea of the writing:

In the version of the story where she chooses to cheat, the night after:
"She truly did not understand why, when she had such a powerful motivation not to rock the boat, she would keep being so provocative, or on an evening when she was desperate not to attract close examination, she would be have in an erratic, irritable fashion sure to bring maximum scrutiny. Did she want him to know? Maybe she was forcing him to play a parlor game, like Botticelli: I'm a famous person, and my name begins with a scarlet A. Or maybe Lawrence was supposed to play hangman on the back of a program, and since he would never in a million years guess that she'd chosen F-A-I-T-H-L-E-S-S H-U-S-S-Y, proceed to noose himself, letter by letter."

"This is what the coward in Lawrence had opted for: that they never kiss. That they never look at each other. That he see only the blurred profile of her head; that she always stare at the wall. That she never be permitted to meet those imploring brown eyes and watch them get what they begged for... He loved her so much that it was scary, and he would no more look into her eyes while they were fucking than stare into the face of the sun."

Just an example or two I came across randomly.

Shriver is sure to point out that both endings have their problems, and that there is no black and white. I think it depends on the personality of the reader which life they side with, though the end of the book makes it pretty clear which way she feels. Up until that point, both futures could be equally miserable or equally happy, depending on your point of view in life. I love that the ending is just that, a chosen ending. The story goes on in both ways, and you can choose which to believe, draw your own morals. It was particularly engrossing for someone like me who second guesses nearly all her decisions and always wonders 'what might have been'.

Problems with the book: Shriver seems to get sidetracked with a number of digressions on subjects that she's apparently interested in but which don't seem to fit in with this book. She has characters give odd rants that seem out of character, and her words are just a little too fierce. She is especially sanctimonious on the issue of Americans in London or abroad in general. Shriver also clearly has a huge socioeconomic, national, and also British guilt complex. There's a lot in here about what one "should," do, and big causes of the day (the book takes place between 1997-2003, largely) are mentioned all over the place. It is partially to make a point, so I'll forgive her that, but nonetheless, she seems to be trying to explore her own guilty feelings and impulses on the page in places that don't really fit. There's several rants about the romance of being poor, for instance, the possessive grief after 9/11 (which was actually rather insightful- who "owned" 9/11 after it), stuff about virtuously watching the news every night and caring about the Third World. Yes, part of one of the characters... but a bit too much for it to have been just that.

Also, I have to admit the quality of the writing was somewhat uneven. I'd say the majority of it was good, but there were several spots where she left behind perfectly nuanced, lovely explorations for unsubtle metaphors and heavy handed, clunky expressions.

Overall, it still worked for me though. I liked it quite a bit.
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Reading Progress

March 26, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
May 7, 2008 – Shelved as: fiction
July 22, 2008 – Shelved as: brit-lit
March 16, 2009 – Shelved as: romantical
July 29, 2009 – Shelved as: po-mo
September 11, 2009 – Shelved as: owned
March 26, 2010 – Shelved as: 21st-century

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Kelly--I also thought this book was brilliant. And like you, I ALWAYS second-guess my decisions. It was so engrossing to see the two lives played out like that. If only that could happen in real life. Great review.

Kelly It really was great, and I'm so glad that she was able to show such a nuanced view on either side, even if she did have her preferences. I felt like I was benefiting from 20 years of wisdom that I don't have.

I wish that this could happen in real life too, even if I did have to choose one, I'd like to sit down and watch a movie of the other. 'Cause I'm that narcissistic. :)

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I love that--"I'm that narcissistic"!

What were the author's preferences in your opinion? I definitely had the sense that she wanted Irina to cheat on Lawrence. You?

And I do think that Shriver lets you make your own decision about what would have been the best decision. It really depends on the reader. For me, I was cheering for Irina to be with the Snooker player. Call it the romantic in me.

message 4: by Kelly (last edited May 07, 2008 12:15PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I also had the sense that she was rooting for the storyline where Irina cheated. And yet... she had lots of reservations and frustrations with it, and much like we would do, the side of her whose head isn't in romance novels and Disney endings, played out just as much as what she wanted. So I give her credit for that.

Ultimately, I did want her to stay with Ramsey. Because that was clearly the "being true to yourself," storyline. I think she made the point very well that in either story, nothing we do really matters that much in the end, so we may as well be happy. Another reason to go to Ramsey. Lawrence makes her a better person, and independent, but he does not consume her. Consuming has its downsides, but you could never say that it isn't warm. Especially for a character like Irina who wanted a man above all else. In Ramsey, she got a man. In Lawrence, she got ideas of what she should be. Any man in Lawrence was in hiding from her. However... I think in her place, I would have gone to Ramsey but walked out about halfway through the book rather than staying. I would never have taken the screaming that she did even with the love she got in return. I'm sure guilt and anger would have destroyed a me-as-Irina story. Catholic guilt complexes galore. Especially with Ramsey's apparently matchingly huge guilt complex.

Sorry, I'll stop, but. Did you not have mixed feelings about Ramsey like I did?

message 5: by [deleted user] (last edited May 07, 2008 12:49PM) (new)

Oh yes, I definitely had mixed feelings about Ramsey. I mean, the passion they had was intoxicating, BUT he was such a 4-year old. Passive-aggressive. He liked to play games emotionally. I felt like Shriver's message was you may leave the man you're with and think you are going to something better, but you may find out the "something better" isn't better in every way. I liked that things weren't perfect with Ramsey. I also liked that Irina came to appreciate Lawrence more after she left him.

The tipping point for me was that I LIKED the Irina with Ramsey more than the Irina that stayed with Lawrence. The Irina/Ramsey character was braver, more true to herself. The Irina/Lawrence character wasn't assertive enough. She played it too safe. I felt like she should have gone with her gut. But then, how do you leave a good man for the unknown? I can definitely see both sides.

Kelly I agree with you on that point. That Irina-the-Ramsey-lover was much more likable than the other Irina. It was interesting, but I think that had a lot to do with who had the "power" in the relationship. I think Ramsey and Irina were a lot more equal than Irina and Lawrence, if that makes sense. Particularly when Irina is under her guilt for the almost cheating that she did. She was more affectionate to Lawrence, she wanted more from him, she layed out her needs, she was more vulnerable... all of which gave him all the power, which he slowly took into all areas of life, and I think got less and less interested in her as the book went on. Bethany became more sexy as an independent woman he couldn't tame, or whatever dudes like that think is a good excuse for cheating.

With Ramsey... his jealousy, his pettiness, his inability to understand the world often gave her power, particularly at the end with his illness, too. I felt like she grew more as a person. People only change if they're forced to. Ramsey forced her. For good or ill.

I agree too that the unknown can be scary, particularly when what you have is so conventionally "good." I think it was made harder in that her character was older, and had been with the guy for awhile. Had she been in her twenties, I don't think this sort of dilemma would be so wrenching, you know? I'm in that age range, and I can see how people roll their eyes at me whenever I talk about any drama in my love life. Her age gave it weight.

Taylor This didn't show up in my update feed. No good, no good! :(

Nice review - I'm definitely going to have to bump this up the list.

Kelly Goodreads has been playing tricks like that recently. There must be changelings in the system.

You should bump it up. It's exactly the sort of thing you would like and relate to. Suuuch a Taylor overanalyzing book. :)

Taylor Oh I can tell. Although some may say I should try to diminish those impulses instead of indulging them... buuut, what the hell. It ain't like they're going away any time soon.

Kelly But this is overanalyzing in a good way! In a deep way that is committed to bringing out the real reasons that we do things rather than the pat, obvious ones. Even really unattractive ones. Irina ends up admitting that the accomplishment she wants most in life is having a man. She also says really nasty things about the NHS in Britain, like it being "fine. For /other people/," rather than herself or her husband. It's PC to support universal health care, but I don't know. Stuff like that I found really honest.

Thank you, Robert. I'm gald you enjoyed it. :)

message 11: by Jude (new) - added it

Jude what a review!! thanks and i WILL read this!

. btw, just finished Never Let Me Go on cd and talk about soul-crushing - of a different order. i can't remember the last time the effect of a book just kinda crept up on me the next day when i was despairing and questioning the whole motivation for putting one foot in front of the next & then slapped myself on the forehead and said DUH. :> any way -thanks again for this and all you share - it's quite a lovely stream of inspiration, challenge & dish.

Kelly Jude, I'm so pleased you're going to read this! That's when I really feel like my time on this site is well spent. :)

You know, it wasn't the message of Never Let Me Go that drove me off it but the way it was written, so perhaps a book on tape for that one would actually be appropriate! Perhaps I will experiment if I ever get back to that one.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks for the compliment, Robert. Maybe Kelly and I should have our own book club. :)

Sorry it took me so long to answer--but here goes. The power thing is soooo interesting. How the moment Irina turned around and tried harder with Lawrence, she somehow became more vulnerable and gave up her power in the relationship. Why DOES that happen? I think it's partly because she couldn't see past the two possibilites in front of her: Stay with Lawrence. Cheat with Ramsey. But what if she had just left Lawrence? The very fact that she almost cheated with Ramsey should have told her something wasn't right in her relationship with Lawrence. But Irina denied that and stayed with Lawrence and everything fell apart. She wasn't strong or true to herself, and I think Lawrence began to see that. Hence why he had the power.

I feel like Shriver had soooo much to say about power in this book. In both of Irina's relationships. I agree that Irina had more power toward the end of her relationship with Ramsey, but definitely not in the beginning. And she only had the power when Ramsey was sick and dying. You're right--all Irina wanted was to have a man. I think it was this need that caused her to NOT have the power in her relationships. Because in the end all she really wanted was the guy--no matter what kind of crap he was pulling. And I'm not sure that's an age thing. That might be a self-esteem issue. I keep wondering, is it a worthy goal to just want a man? THAT is partly what made Irina's character so interesting. She was strong, and yet weak. She was very human.

Kelly We should, next time one of us reads a book the other one really liked. :)

I think you're right that it was Irina's big weakness that causes her to lose power in both relationships. If she had been able to have the trump card making either of them believe that she would actually walk out on them, I think that they would have treated her better, you know? I think men like a challenge, like just a little bit of their woman that they can't tame. It keeps things exciting, keeps them on their better behavior. Being dependent on a man... well, sure, some of them like to play noble rescuer and take care of girls, but that gets old after awhile. At some point, girl's gotta be able to cross the street and walk through puddles by herself 'cause your back's gonna give out if you do it for her one more time. Its tiring. And I think that's what happened for both of them, you know? And it is as true vice versa of women with men. Some evidence that the man needs you is good, total dependance and neediness? Total turnoff.

I think you're right. There just wasn't a third option for her in the book, she only saw Stay with Lawrence or Cheat with Ramsey. What about some other author at one of her events, or a cute publisher, or hell, some guy she saw frequently in her favorite stores. Why were there only two men in the world for her? Why was there no moment where she looked around her and started smiling at random cute strangers for the sheer suffocation of that idea?

I don't know if its a worthy goal to just want a partner, but I'm sure that it is a very normal one. Shriver does make the good point that you can only find so much satisfaction in your professional life. Even Lawrence is driven to seek the arms of Bethany (wish I had the italics to use on that name. :)) to escape from it. Its an also interesting comment on people who let their lives be ruled by "should," or "the right thing," without acknowledging the demons of our nature. Which might be noble, but it doesn't make those demons go away at all. They'll still want satisfying, and in the end you'll end up doing something ten times more terrible, like Lawrence's five year affair.

I'm convinced if Lawrence could have just shared a few fantasies and looked Irina in the face while he was fucking her, it all would have been fine. But you don't want the "should," part of you to hear about the "shouldn't," part of you, do you? And Irina represented that to him. People so often become representations rather than themselves, through no fault of their own, just through the projections of others. Completely unfair, of course, but I think that strongly affected Lawrence and Irina's relationship, too.

Jennifer (aka EM) Kelly, a GREAT review (from 2008, I see! Floating!). I've not read this one but just finished So Much For That - and am looking for reasons to give Shriver a second (third, actually) chance. The flaws you point out sunk her in SMFT. What a frustrating author for me. I'll try this one sometime soon.

Kelly The flaws you point out sunk her in SMFT.

Yeah, I wonder whether this would be worth reading for you then? I found enough here that those flaws were overcome. I was still emotionally hooked by it, which probably was what made the difference. Just to be fair, though, I should point you to an excellent review one of my GR friends wrote that highlights some other flaws:

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