Being a fan of Lionel Shriver's previous novel, "We Need to Talk About Kevin", I was thrilled to find that she had a new novel out. I was even more intrigued by the novel's beguiling plot: Irina McGovern, a forty-something ex-pat living in London, finds herself at a crossroads, and the novel proceeds in two separate directions. Irina has been in an almost ten year relationship with Lawrence Trainer that has settled into a comfortable if stultifying groove. He's sturdy, reliable, intelligent, and reasonably attractive, but he's also stubborn, judgmental, strict, and their relationship has become exceptionally passionless. He won't even marry Irina because he's against marriage. Enter Ramsey Acton, a beguiling pro Snooker player that is Lawrence's polar opposite: smoldering to Lawrence's blandness, passionate to Lawrence's stoicism, daring where Lawrence is cautious. And here lies the predicament that Irina finds herself in after being left alone with Ramsey for his annual birthday dinner: give in to fiery, passionate temptation ... or remain loyal to the tried-and-true life she has grown accustomed to.
Thus, in storyline 'A' Irina gives in to temptation and leaves Lawrence for Ramsey, while in storyline 'B' she takes smug satisfaction in her own strength of character and loyalty. For a while the back and forth is quite enchanting and clever, and the reader delights in Shriver's carefully concocted parallel structure. But by page 300 those very same parallels that were intriguing and smart become oppressive to the plot and render it hopelessly predictable. If something happens in storyline A you can rely on its counterpoint occuring in B: if Irina has to act as a mediator during a public spat in A, she will be the one causing the scene in B; if she receives a special something in A she will be denied it in B; and so on until the novel's ultimate counterpoint that I cannot reveal here. What was so exciting, at least to me, about the premise of the book was the concept of exploring two different scenarios, and Shriver squanders the opportunity to explore what might have been by slavishly adhering to form -- creating two stories that move in parallel lines instead of diverging ones. Suddenly an otherwise intelligent novel becomes dull and plodding, and the ultimate disappointment is that both A and B's endings are also entirely predictable since both are foreshadowed earlier on. One would have easily been touching and heartfelt if you hadn't been cued to see it coming, and the other might have been shocking if it hadn't been portended earlier on.
Shriver also has a periodic way of getting sidetracked by politics in her novel, which spans roughly fifteen years starting in the 1990s and taking us to the post-9/11 era. They are distracting, and woefully out of place. She takes swipes at Bill Clinton for failing to catch Osama Bin Laden and potshots at Hillary for being ambitious. She decries Britain's National Healthcare system as a hackneyed operation doomed to failure. She even contrives to have all of her characters in Manhattan on the eve of 9/11 for no real reason, since ultimately the atrocity will have very little to do with the plot except to serve Shriver's purpose in analogies for the remainder of the novel -- which is ironic because one character opines that to reduce the scope of that tragedy to such (comparatively) trivial matters is "surely a vain misappropriation of national tragedy". But that didn't stop Shriver from doing it anyway. The aforementioned political asides feel disjointed and don't belong in the plotline, and ultimately neither did 9/11. Had it ultimately had more to do with the plot it would be fine, but it just pops in and then out again as suddenly as it happened. It's a shame that it is becoming commonplace for such a tragic event to be used as a go-to plot device in novels, and while Shriver's depiction of the day is about a million times better -- and more accurate -- than the shockingly offensive turn Claire Messud gave it in last year's "The Emperor's Children", it still feels like a cheap trick.
But what I really disliked about 'The Post-Birthday World" in the end was Shriver's sadistic treatment of Irina. In both storylines she is doomed to apologize for other people's messes in addition to hers, to accept a grotesquely unfair portion of the blame for every misdeed committed, and to be misused and taken advantage of. It comes down to the men in her life. Ramsey is a brash lush whose raging temper has him emotionally abusing Irina from the beginning of their relationship. Lawrence is such an unrelentingly arrogant, narcissictic jerk that he smothers Irina at every turn. What you would really like is for her to toss them both on the street and tell them to sod off, but Shriver seems more interested in antagonizing Irina than in letting her off the hook even a little bit.
Book clubs would have a field day with this novel because it certainly leaves itself open for debate, but I can't imagine really imagine recommending it to anyone looking for a pleasurable read. For that, I would point them to Shriver's previous effort: "We Need to Talk About Kevin". In that book, her protagonist had some cause to be put through the wringer, but it just feels degrading to watch Irina sink lower and lower.