Summary/Review by Kristen
If anything is certain in this world besides death and taxes, it’s the fact that nobody is perfect. It’s an impossible concept. Even those with the most adamant desires cannot achieve a status of unadulterated perfection. But it’s also our abortive attempts at absolute perfection that can make us perfect in other ways, perfect to other people. It’s a cruel and abstruse abstract. And in our journey for this unviable state, we all make mistakes. We encounter pivotal moments in life when we must decide between comfort and the unknown. It’s often in those moments we change our lives for better or worse, and once we’ve made that decision, even if it’s for the best, the ever lingering question “what if?” tends to present itself. In The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver gives readers the rare opportunity, to discover both outcomes of a life altering decision. It’s this plot that both highlights the realistic positives and negatives of both outcomes, and offers the inquisition that maybe we shouldn’t fear change but rather embrace life and the opportunities presented to us.
Shriver introduces readers to the main character, Irina McGovern. She’s an attractive middle-aged, talented illustrator, who carries her own self-confidence issues due to growing up with a perfect, overbearing mother. More notably, she’s been in the same relationship for ten years, but her boyfriend, Lawrence, is averse to the institution of marriage. So they live a content, comfortable life with each other. While in the earlier years there was passion and mystery, after a decade it seems they fell into the habit of routine and lackluster that many people experience. But this simple, predictable life seems to suit them.
Things change when Irina meets Ramsey Acton, a famous Snooker player in the United Kingdom, of whom Lawrence happens to be a tremendous fan. There’s an instant connection with Ramsey although she doesn’t recognize or accept this at first. He happens to be married to Jude, the author of a book with whom Irina is working.
Not so tragically, Ramsey and Jude divorce, and Irina finds herself being the only one available for his annual birthday gathering. After a night of good conversation, drinks, and even pot, Irina realizes how attracted she is to Ramsey. Every part of her wants to kiss him, and she finds herself at a crossroad. Ramsey being a gentleman, would never advance upon her, and she would have to choose what life she wanted to live. As he shows her how to play Snooker in his basement, she turns to wish him a happy birthday, and the reader is left to wonder if she takes the passionate plunge into the unknown, or stays loyal to her comfortable life with Lawrence.
One of the most interesting things about The Post-Birthday World is how Shriver creates two worlds for every chapter. The first revealing Irina’s life if she kissed Ramsey, and the second if she stayed loyal to Lawrence. In the first reality, we learn that Irina’s love for Ramsey is passionate and the two, although with little affinity, fit together perfectly. Irina is a well-educated woman, while Ramsey dropped out of school to play Snooker. And one of the vital things we learn is Ramsey, although a stand up gentlemen, has his own insecurities. But these insecurities end up damaging the relationship. He tends to get upset over small matters and then proceeds to fight with Irina for hours in a way that makes her always give into him until they make up and reunite their passion for each other through sex.
Despite Ramsey’s sensitivity and need to have his own way, he brings out a side of Irina to which she’s not accustomed. She learns to enjoy life and care less about pleasing others as opposed to pleasing herself. She leaves Lawrence and marries Ramsey within a year of being together. And while at first she falls behind in her work, she ends up writing her own children’s book and winning a coveted accolade as well.
Even more importantly, Ramsey makes her feel beautiful. He explicitly tells her how gorgeous she is, and reassures his love by putting his arms around her and keeping her close. With different interests and hobbies the couple was closer than most. Shriver demonstrates how sometimes, the most passionate love comes from one similar interest – the undying interest in each other.
In the second half of each chapter, Lionel Shriver introduces his audience to a major theme of the nineties decade. The concept of staying. In this version, Irina remains loyal to Lawrence and we’re introduced to the events that unravel due to her decision. Their relationship is merely comfortable, and while Lawrence appears to be a good, loyal man he becomes more distant as time passes. In this version, Irina’s life is planned, proper, and well-rehearsed. There are no surprises, she completes her illustrations on time, and writes a children’s book for which she doesn’t win an award. She also doesn’t have the satisfaction or chivalry of Lawrence standing up to her mother and defending her, but rather Lawrence obsequiously interacting with her kin.
As the book progresses, The Post-Birthday World exposes the counterpart of an unfaithful relationship. It’s a refreshing concept to be able to experience both viewpoints, and as always, being cheated on proves the most abhorrent situations. Lawrence ends up having an affair with a co-worker and leaves Irina. She’s left with her work, and a flat to remind her of her previously normal life. Her only hope is Ramsey, but as she learns, he’s fighting cancer and they are unable to reclaim that connection they had throughout the years. It’s embedded into the audience that perfection is once again unattainable, and while we may have favorable circumstances to achieve the most perfect life for ourselves; we often get in our own way by waiting too long.
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