‘The Post-Birthday World’ by Lionel Shriver
I’ve often wondered, as most people do, about what my life would be like if I had made different decisions at certain crucial points. What if I hadn’t taken that job, talked to that person — or, conversely, what if I had taken that job, talked to that person, moved to that place? It would be nice to know, sometimes, to take a peak into the life you could have been living.
In The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver indulges that desire. Irina, a children’s book illustrator, is living in London with her partner, Lawrence, when she finds herself taking a mutual friend of theirs out for dinner — alone. Irina has been attracted to this gentleman before, but she’s faced with a choice when it transpires that he is more than just a little attracted to her, as well.
From there, Shriver follows Irina’s journey from both sides. The structure of the novel is brilliant, allowing the reader to easily follow which reality is being described at any given time, in overlapping chapters. The same general events occur, but the way Irina reacts to them and is involved with them is totally different — as is she. The very choices she makes defines the type of person she is, and Shriver does an excellent job of keeping Irina authentic while showing how her choices have affected her personality.
Perhaps the thing I like best about this story is that Shriver doesn’t attempt to moralize. There isn’t a “good” choice or a “bad” choice, no right or wrong answers. And, in fact, Irina herself describes the story best when she says, “The idea is that you don’t have only one destiny….whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You’re dealing with a set of trade-offs….I didn’t want to have one bad future and one good. In both, everything is all right, really.”
Everything is all right, but Irina has had to make a choice, either way — she either follows a passion, or she sticks with what she is ‘supposed’ to do. Shriver does an amazing job of making sure Irina doesn’t get off easy either way — and one wonders which life Irina would have picked, if she knew all of the facts ahead of time. The conclusion, which I won’t spoil for you, is simply brilliant, and showcases the emotional acumen of a writer who has been through a number of difficult choices in her lifetime and knows the importance of believing you’ve made the correct one.