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The Post-Birthday World Paperback – Feb 26 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
The smallest details of staid coupledom duel it out with a lusty alternate reality that begins when a woman passes up an opportunity to cheat on her longtime boyfriend in Shriver's latest (after the Orange Prize–winning We Need to Talk About Kevin). Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator in London, lives in comfortable familiarity with husband-in-everything-but-marriage-certificate Lawrence Trainer, and every summer the two have dinner with their friend, the professional snooker player Ramsey Acton, to celebrate Ramsey's birthday. One year, following Ramsey's divorce and while terrorism specialist "think tank wonk" Lawrence is in Sarajevo on business, Irina and Ramsey have dinner, and after cocktails and a spot of hash, Irina is tempted to kiss Ramsey. From this near-smooch, Shriver leads readers on a two-pronged narrative: one consisting of what Irina imagines would have happened if she had given in to temptation, the other showing Irina staying with Lawrence while fantasizing about Ramsey. With Jamesian patience, Shriver explores snooker tournaments and terrorism conferences, passionate lovemaking and passionless sex, and teases out her themes of ambition, self-recrimination and longing. The result is an impressive if exhausting novel. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Shriver's eighth novel will attract patient readers ready for the next step after chick lit. With dual parallel narratives, Shriver offers two paths for his protagonist, Irina, to tread: stay with her dull but stable boyfriend or run off with the exciting but volatile public figure she's only known in passing and for whom she suddenly lusts. The story lines split at a cinematic-style moment when Irina feels the urge to kiss this new love interest. In one version of the story, she kisses him, and in another, she resists temptation. Both story lines unfold predictably, but what will hook the reader is watching each run its respective course. In each version of her life, she makes choices with excruciating slowness. Her naivete notwithstanding, something about the narrative arc keeps the reader rooting for her. The addition of subplots--her relationship with her demanding and uncompromising mother, the drama of the world of British championship snooker, the unavoidable nature of international terrorism--contribute depth. This novel is ostensibly formulaic, but the details and the solid writing make it ultimately enjoyable. Debi Lewis
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
I felt the author dipped in and out of the two life options in a clever manner, showing how a phrase in one story line could mean something quite different in the other. I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who has thought about what their life would have been if they had taken that other path.
Then there is the language. Pretentious when it need not be, especially considering the characters.
My book club found this one of the worst books we've read.
Do yourself a favour and give this a miss...complete waste of time. Read The Postmistress instead. Far more superior and a pleasure to read.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The alternate realities/story lines are well written, and cunningly related to each other and often over-lapping. Most interesting is the way Shriver builds the character of Lawrence and how differently he is meant to be perceived by the reader in each scenario; the Lawrence that Irina is faithful to is much less likeable that poor cuckolded Lawrence.
I am a huge fan of "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and Shriver's pitch-perfect use of the unreliable narrator. In "The Post-Birthday World" Shriver's prose is a real treat, reminiscent of the days when gifted writers took the time and effort to set a scene and to lay out a plot that gently urged the reader to turn "just one more page".
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.
The down side is that the really good parts cast the rest of it in shadow. I'm not one who has to fall in love and totally relate to the main character, but I found Irina to be stupid and unlikable. The men are bland stock characters. Ramsey's dialogue makes it sound like she's romancing Hagrid. He is an unsophisticated emotional imbecile, who YES we get it, is good in the sack. The characterization of Lawrence is no better. He is either dull but trustworthy and true or he is dull and hiding something. I'm curious why anyone would fashion such a trio of losers. But the main character is so awful as to be puzzling. Was it the author's intention to write about a stupid and shallow woman who will invariably shoot herself in the foot no matter what she does? Would she like to know the character she created? I wouldn't. It's odd to think of a woman in her early 40s behaving this way. Did she spend her 20s in a nunnery? I haven't quite finished, so maybe she did.
The dialogue can be cringeworthy and indulgent. For one, everyone speaks in long emotion-heavy paragraphs that serve to move the plot along. The real and imagined scenarios are grossly daydreamy and maudlin. In fact at times, it reads like a bad daydream by a romance reader who finds Lifetyme TV absorbing. The author also wants to weigh in on the 90s and those parts are clunky and intrusive. She also suffers from the laughable (usually) male writer affliction of the perfect woman - beautiful without any makeup, thin without any effort. She even loses weight when she does nothing but eat out and booze it up with Ramsey! Wow, what an accomplishment. She should be so proud. Yet her only insight into her sister's marriage is to wonder whether her husband loves her because she went (this is so misogynistic) from "bird to cow."
I also never want to read another word about snooker ever again. I'm going to try one more of this author's books and/or maybe her next one. But if there is even a hint of snooker in either of them, it's going back.
That discussion- whether a calm, stable, yet less than erotically fulfilling relationship is better than a volatile yet sexually fulfilling one is explored here by the author using alternating chapters that show "Irina's" life at particular places-first if she leaves her long-term partner after kissing another man, and then if she remains after deciding not to kiss him.
To the author's credit, she avoids many cliches and stereotypes associated with the "stable but boring" man and the "sexy but unpredictable" man, and avoids moralizing about fidelity. Although we are only privy to Irina's interior thoughts, Shriver does an excellent job of creating fully-fleshed out characters- not only with Irina and her two men- Lawrence and Ramsey, but with some of the more minor characters as well, such as Irina's mother and sister, and Ramsey's ex-wife.
Irina's feelings are depicted realistically. Any woman who has been in love with a man she knew was probably not good for her, but couldn't help herself, and/or complacent and mostly content, if not completely satisfied with another will empathize with Irina's turbulence and soul-searching. Some readers may even find her experience agonizing.
Although I was riveted by this story and couldn't put the book down, I can't say that reading it was very pleasant; in fact I felt a faint hint of indigestion while reading it. I am still trying to sort out if it was because aspects of Irina's experiences hit too close to home at times, or if the strain of mean-spiritness I found to be running through the book really exists there.
Irina presents as a decent, thoughtful, if somewhat insecure woman. Although there were times I wanted to take her and shake her, it was hard to watch all of the emotional punishment and suffering the author heaped upon her. There were emotionally abusive aspects in both of her relationships, and there were points I wished she'd ditch both men and find somebody truly healthy for her. At times I wanted to scream, "There's plenty of fish in the sea Irina- lose these bozos!!"
Then, just as it seemed that in both scenarios, Irina's patience with the particular man was paying off, the author would throw a monkey-wrench into the mix to torture Irina again. Perhaps it would have been more fitting if the heroine had been named "Job."
The ending will sure to keep book discussion boards busy, as it can be interpreted as open-ended. I thought that perhaps at this point the author had tired of toying with Irina and decided to have a go at the reader, instead.
I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those "controversial, love it or hate it" books. I certainly have very mixed feelings about it. It is certain to be provacative and make for some interesting book discussion group get-togethers and water-cooler talk.
I think Shriver uses dialogue brilliantly--demonstrating again and again how we never actually say what we really mean--or rather, that it's not so much content that delivers our message, but how we say what we say and to whom, and where, and when. Conversations between friends, strangers, and lovers are not simply the free interchange of ideas floating in midair but tools wielded with purpose and agenda to define one's self and one's partner, to enact in a power play, to hide as much as we reveal.
Once I discovered how Shriver actually wanted me to read the novel--not to preen admiringly at how precious it was that she repeated dialogue in two similar passages forty pages apart, but to think extremely critically at what these differences reveal about the characters and relationships as they are continually lifted and dropped in twin narrative arcs--it opened up and revealed itself to be very sophisticated. Trust that the author has a plan and that there is more going on that some literary gimmick, and you'll be amply rewarded.
I still can't stop thinking about this novel.