Monday, December 26, 2011

Completed: The Post-Birthday World...and this year's TBR challenge!


This morning, I completed The Post-Birthday World.  This was quite satisfying, because it also means I achieved my goal of reading 12 of my 14 TBR books. Yahoo!

The plot of this book will be much easier to summarize if you've seen the movie Sliding Doors. Like the film (and I sort of want to watch it again now that I'm thinking about it), this book follows the main character's life down 2 divergent paths depending on the outcome of a particular night. Irina is a 40-something old expatriate American living in London with her long-time lover, Lawrence. One night, when Lawrence is away on a business trip, Irina takes one of their old friends, Ramsey, out for his birthday. Ramsey is a spectacularly attractive man and a famous snooker player. That night, Irina and Ramsey strike off electric sparks and her feelings of attraction are overwhelming. Should she betray Lawrence and kiss Ramsey, as she is dying to do? Or stave off the attraction and stay true to herself and her relationship?

The Post-Birthday World Chapter Twos...
The book diverges from this point with successive chapters, those where she kisses Ramsey and those where she doesn't. They did a nice job with the chapter numbers to help readers keep track of whether it's a "Ramsey" or "Lawrence" chapter. As you can see, each chapter number happens twice: the gray "Ramsey" chapters followed by the white "Lawrence" chapters. (As an aside, I don't know if this would make a good audiobook. I relied on these to keep track, and wonder how they'd get around this helpful visual cue.)

I thought at first it would be hard to follow the divergent storylines, but Shriver does use similar events to ground the story and help the reader track changes in time, familial relationships, and friendships.

I liked this book, but even after finishing it I continue to have some reservations. Let me get those out of the way first, and then I can end with the good stuff. The glaring problem with a book like this is the gimmick. And even though it's a good story, it never stopped feeling gimmicky. Even worse, there's the sense that the author doesn't fully trust her readers. This is a story about the importance of timing---either seizing the moment or letting it pass you by. Irina is an illustrator and children's author, and later in the "Ramsey" story she devises a book very much like this one, where a character follows 2 separate paths and ends up satisfied, in the end, with both choices. This was annoying. I've made it through 375 pages in the book. Why doesn't the author trust me to get her message?

Despite my mild annoyance with the previous issue, I do like Shriver's exploration of the moment of crisis. In literature, those moments are usually monumental, like Oedipus at the crossroads. But for the entire book, it's not clear that one of Irina's choices was "better" than the others. By leaving Ramsey she is following her heart and although it isn't entirely happy, it's fulfilling in that she is living her life to the fullest. By staying with Lawrence, she's exhibiting loyalty but also fear. She chooses what is comfortable, but buries her head in the sand to both Lawrence's faults and to her own.

Shriver is a great writer, and she deftly explores and explains the complexity at the heart of every person. I dog-eared page after page of the book, feeling that Shriver had nailed down some especially complicated feeling. Surprisingly, I found myself liking Ramsey-Irina better than Lawrence-Irina. Even thought she had acted horribly, she was more self-aware and willing to take a desperate grab at happiness, even if it meant facing up to some unpleasant facts about herself: Irina had liked to think of herself as a decent person. Yet in this most telling of spheres her behavior had grown disreputable overnight. While she might have prefered to regard her two-timing as "out of character," it is never persuasive to argue that you are not the kind of person who does what you are actually doing...Should what you get up to fail to comport with who you think you are, something is surely inaccurate (and likely optimistic) about who you think you are (105).

The book is full of passages like this, where Irina contemplates who she is as compared to who she wants to be. Maybe it was interesting to me because I think about this stuff all the time? I guess it's a lot of navel-gazing, but it was compelling stuff. There's a particularly deft scene with a girlfriend who chastises Irina for her affair with Ramsey in one chapter, but then bashes the boring Lawrence in the other. The book essentially argues that so much of what we say and do is driven by circumstances rather than some immutable and perfect elements that are fixed in one's character. When she's with Ramsey, she's annoyed no one takes anything seriously; when she's with Lawrence, she wishes everyone would lighten up and have fun. Both "feelings" are true, but Irina's life lacks balance, and she's incapable of finding that for herself. She understands that her own most profound character flaw is that she uses her man to give her life direction.

Another great pair of scenes is when Irina takes her man home to her mother's for Christmas. Irina's mother is awful, a real piece of work. She's mean and controlling. Irina realizes that her mother is dismissive of the things she herself is lacking, but Irina also thinks, In fact, because the unself-aware--which includes basically everybody--are impervious to uncharitable perceptions of their underlying motives, all those insights you have into people and what makes them tick are surprisingly useless (309). In other words, no matter what, our capacity to know others is limited. This hits home for Irina time and time again, regardless of which plot she's in. The book questions whether it's possibly to truly know yourself, or to truly know others. The best move is to follow your heart and hope for the best.

The Last Chapter 
Even the ending defies a regular storytelling ending. The last chapter could conclude either story, leaving the reader, in a very Lady or the Tiger like fashion, to decide for themselves which Irina story was the "real" one. Ultimately, I don't know if it really matters. Irina learns some hard things about herself and the world regardless of which turn she makes at the crossroads. No one event changes a life completely, instead it's the complex calculus of daily life that carries more meaning. Not a bad thing to keep in mind as we navigate the world, is it?



  1. This makes me want to watch Sliding Doors again, as well! What a great film.

    I'm amazed that this author was able to pull together an ending that could work for either story. Do you think that also supports a theory that, regardless of the choices we make, things are going to work out the same in the end? Like, "destiny?"

    How is the final chapter labeled? (Grey box or white box or... other?)

    I'll tell you right now, this would make a terrible audiobook. At least, for me. I would definitely be frustrated wanting to double-check which chapter we were in. Unless... two different narrators? Or the same narrator, doing a slightly different voice? Hrm.

    "There's a particularly deft scene with a girlfriend who chastises Irina for her affair with Ramsey in one chapter, but then bashes the boring Lawrence in the other." I love this -- it's perfect. I think this is *exactly* what happens and I love that Shriver addresses it this way.

    It doesn't surprise me that Shriver doesn't entirely trust her readers -- the only thing I know about her was the article she wrote where she used her *own* work to defend her thesis (re: the likability of characters). Sooo... she obviously likes to break it all on down for ya.

    You briefly mentioned Irina's "likability" -- so were either Irina ultimately "likable" or was there a whiff of unlikability to both of them? And how do you think that influenced your enjoyment of the book?

  2. Also... go, YOU for finishing the challenge!!

    I am more than halfway done with Freakonomics. Need to burn through the rest of it and write my review -- I have a feeling it will be brief. ;)

  3. K,

    I went in and added a picture of the last chapter so you can see it. A picture's worth a thousand words!

    It's sort of spoilery to talk about Irina's likeablity, but I'm going to forge ahead. In the Lawwrence chapters, it's clear to everyone but Irina that HE is having an affair with her coworker. And despite all the evidence of that, she just refuses to face up to it. She's woefully passive, so convinced that Lawrence is "good" that she doesn't pay attention to the MANY signs that something is wrong. It doesn't make her unlikeable exactly, but it does make her seem sad and more than a little pathetic. Whereas in the Ramsey chapters, she's got a lot more moxie.

    Looking forward to your Freakonomics thoughts. I read that book a while ago and would love to hear what you think.