In Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Irina McGovern, a sensible and somewhat staid children’s book illustrator, is fairly content with her equally rational boyfriend, Lawrence Trainer, with whom she has lived in London for several years. While Irina is slightly dismayed that Lawrence rarely kisses her and apparently has no desire to marry her, she genuinely believes herself fortunate for having found a stable, considerate man. One evening, however, Irina’s world is turned upside down. Irina and Lawrence had made an almost accidental habit of celebrating the birthday of their casual friend, professional snooker player Ramsey Acton, with Ramsey and his wife, Jude. That couple’s divorce, however, has taken Jude out of the picture, and Lawrence is away on a business trip, leaving Irina to entertain Ramsey on her own. At the end of the evening, Irina is startled to find that she is powerfully drawn to Ramsey, and she longs to kiss him. She senses that her decision to act on that impulse will have profound implications for her life. Further, she knows that if she does not kiss Ramsey she will always wonder what would have happened if she did.
The reader, however, is not left to wonder. At this point, the novel splits into alternating narratives marking the two very different paths that Irina’s life takes. In one time line, Irina kisses Ramsey. They go no further than kissing that night, or on many subsequent meetings, because neither is comfortable with betraying Lawrence to that incontrovertible degree. Irina cannot get the prospect of sleeping with Ramsey out of her mind, however, and when Ramsey tells Irina that she must either leave Lawrence or stop seeing Ramsey, she follows her heart and leaves Lawrence. A few short months later, after a whirlwind tour of the professional snooker circuit, Irina marries Ramsey, setting forth on a more tumultuous relationship than she ever could have imagined.
In the other time line, Irina resists the impulse to kiss Ramsey, instead fleeing to the bathroom to compose herself. Then, because she does not see Ramsey often, she compartmentalizes the incident in her mind, taking it out occasionally to speculate what direction her life might have taken had she acted upon that impulse. Irina plods along, vaguely disturbed by Lawrence’s increasing emotional distance, only to find out years later that Lawrence started an affair with a coworker not long after the fateful birthday with Ramsey.
While the idea of divergent outcomes based on a pivotal moment is not new, Shriver’s deft handling of the alternate time lines makes this novel truly unique. For instance, certain conversations are repeated almost verbatim within the two narratives, but with different characters taking each part. In one life, when Irina takes Ramsey home to meet her family, she begs him not to pick a fight with her during the visit, knowing that any mention of her ex-partner Lawrence by her tactless mother is likely to set Ramsey off. In the other time line, Lawrence pleads with Irina not to pick a fight with her own mother during their Christmas visit. When the inevitable friction between mother and daughter occurs, the volatile Ramsey does indeed start an embarrassing fight with Irina yet fiercely defends his wife when his new mother-in-law criticizes her. Lawrence, on the other hand, would never humiliate Irina with such a jealous display, but neither does he support Irina in her family relationships, implicitly blaming Irina for not being able to get along with her mother.
The fact that Irina’s possible lives differ so greatly depending on her choice of partner might lead some readers to infer that Shriver believes a woman’s life depends more on the man she chooses than any other factor. This criticism is too simplistic, however, because the novel also examines the profound differences in the men’s lives based on their relationships with Irina. For instance, the Lawrence that Irina ultimately leaves for Ramsey senses her pulling away during her months of indecision, such that he examines their relationship and tries to reestablish their emotional connection. For this Irina, it is too little and too late, but Lawrence nonetheless becomes a more thoughtful and emotionally available man because of Irina’s influence. The Lawrence that Irina stays with, however, senses Irina’s efforts to cling to him, and he...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)