The Post-Birthday World offers a
thoughtful and highly entertaining look at the implications,
large and small, of who we choose to love. Russian-American
Irena is a book illustrator who lives in London with her
long-term boyfriend Lawrence, also from the USA, who works for a
prestigious but dull "think tank". Their relationship is a
little too solid, but Irena has no complaints - until one
fateful night when she finds herself with an "improvident urge
to fasten her mouth on the wrong man" knowing full well that the
decision is entirely in her hands and that "she now stood at the
most consequential crossroads of her life". On this
cliff-hanging note Chapter 1 ends.
At the opening of one version of Chapter 2, Irena has taken the fateful fork in the road and kissed Ramsey; in the other version she resisted. The remainder of the book offers parallel chapters that play out Irena's life as as she travels down these two alternative and mutually exclusive paths.
It was interesting to read the full range of critical reviews (although not something I suggest you do as some of the reviewers give away far too much of the plot), not so much for the insights that the reviewers offer but to note how many of them feel the need to cast an opinion on which is the better life for Irena. Some even conclude that one of Irena's lives is the "real" story, while the other is merely in her imagination.
Although a hint of a preference appears to shine through at the end, it's not at all clear that Shriver is intending to present one path as better than the other. In fact, quite the opposite, as witnessed by a story that Irena writes and illustrates in one of her lives. The story is about a young boy called Martin who is a Snooker prodigy (for more about Snooker see the sidebar), but his parents are adamant that he not neglect his studies and forbid him from going near a Snooker table. Martin defies his parents, skips school to play Snooker and starts to win tournaments. When his parents hear of this they give him an ultimatum - turn his back on Snooker or leave home. Martin, who is now good enough to play for money, feels that he has no choice and defies his parents, and spends the best part of the rest of his life playing professional Snooker. He experiences many peak moments but is often lonely on the circuit. As he looks back over his life, Martin realizes that on balance he spent his time doing something that he loves, and that, to him at least, is beautiful.
However, there is more to Martin's story - flip the book over and another version of his life unfolds. At the crossroads in his life he decides to obey his parents. He misses Snooker badly, but concentrates on his studies and finds that the same knack that made him so good at Snooker makes him very good at geometry. He goes on to university and becomes an astronomer, and later an astronaut. He experiences many peak moments, but is also often lonely looking through his telescope, or out in space. As he looks back over his life, he realizes that he spent his time doing something that he loves, and that, to him at least, is beautiful.
As Irena explains to Ramsey, "You don't have only one destiny .... Martin gets to express many of the same talents in each story, but in different ways. There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future. In both, everything is all right, really."
If only Irena would accept her own advice in her own life! Neither of Irena's paths turn out quite the way she anticipated, in part because in both lives she cannot let go of the other, continually picking at the "what ifs" and yearning for the life not lived. In her life with Ramsey, she misses the regular domesticity she was accustomed to, and never totally breaks contact with Lawrence. In her other life with Lawrence she struggles to control her desire to break free.
To Shriver's immense credit, even though both men are in many ways polar opposites, they are never presented as simply right or wrong for Irena, let alone good or bad people in themselves. Both love Irena intensely, both mean well at heart and both are honorable if flawed men - and neither are quite the men that Irena thinks them to be.
The Post-Birthday World is relatively sexually explicit in places, but necessarily so because the key dichotomy between Irena's relationship between the two men comes down to passion in all its shapes and forms, but expressed most frequently by the electric connection between Ramsey and Irena, which is absent from her relationship with Lawrence.
Very occasionally, the necessarily repetitive details of the two parallel chapters bog down, but on these few occasions it is easier enough to skip forward, and the rest of the time the slight variations between the two scenes are, in the words of one particularly erudite reviewer, "like listening to a symphony's variations on a theme".
Shriver doesn't appear to be in the business of providing answers, let alone moralizing, but is more interested in raising questions about passion, love, fidelity, ambition, self-recrimination and the legacy of paths not taken. One of the many messages that can be taken from this exceptional book is to stop worrying over paths not taken and instead to appreciate the life that is yours.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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