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The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver


There are “choose-your-own-adventure” books for children in which the story has different outcomes depending on the choices made while reading and being prompted to pick one decision or another. There are also similar books for adults — a series called “Do-Over Novels” recently came through the library and when I tried one, the character ended up being run over by a taxi in India.

Irina McGovern is a Russian-American expat living in London with her long-time boyfriend, Lawrence. She is an illustrator of childrens’ books, and he an intellectual working for Blue Sky Institute, a think-tank, where he studies and researches international relations. Lawrence, a fan of of the pool-like British sport snooker, is pleased to learn that one of Irina’s collaborators, Jude, is married to Ramsey Acton, who is somewhat of a star in the snooker world. This acquaintance eventually becomes a sort of friendship, and the four of them have a standing appointment to meet for Ramsey’s birthday each year. One year, Ramsey’s birthday falls just after he and Jude have separated; with Lawrence out of town for work, Irina feels obligated to take Ramsey out to dinner, and meets him at a Japanese restaurant, where they proceed to get sloshed, and, after going to Ramsey’s house, stoned. From here the story diverges: in one version of the post-birthday world, Irina falls hard for Ramsey, leaving Lawrence and abandoning herself to a tumultuous but passionate marriage. In the other, Irina resists temptation, growing in appreciation for Lawrence’s steadfast niceness, admiring from afar the success of their friend-turned-acquaintance.

I will admit that it took me a while to warm up to this book. The alternating chapters made it a little confusing to follow the storyline in each world. And unlike the previous novel by Shriver that I had read, the characters did not immediately provoke any feelings in me, though as the novel progressed and the contrast between the two worlds increased, the poignancy of the smallest decisions became more evident, and I was drawn into the story. Though the events are obviously not identical in each world, they are mirrored and reflected in different ways to highlight the impact of Irina’s decision on the lives of the three pivotal characters. I liked seeing the way that Irina’s relationship with the two men played out in both worlds — the personality traits and the characteristics of each becoming beloved and irritating in turns. But more than anything, the Frostian “road not taken” is something that haunts me personally, and to see it played out in a realistic, brutally honest, and consequence-laden story, and to know that there are no neat, happy endings — this makes a great novel.

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