The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

The Post-Birthday WorldThe Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver, enveloped my world for the four days it took me to read it. I could tell that my mood shifted with the shifts in the book. That’s a weird feeling; one that doesn’t often happen to me.


“What began as coincidence had crystallized into tradition: on the sixth of July, they would have dinner with Ramsey Acton on his birthday.”

Irina McGovern lives comfortably with her “husband” of ten years, Lawrence. She’s a children’s book illustrator; he works at a think tank. They live calm, regulated lives that rarely stray from established routine. Until Irina is sent to carry on the birthday dinner tradition with Ramsey Action – alone. Irina is overcome with the desire to kiss him. Faced with the most important decision of her life, Irina hestitates, and then . . . the chapters alternately follow the Irina who did kiss Ramsey and the Irina who did not kiss Ramsey.

I loved the structure of this book. That idea, the premise, was enough to get me to pick up this book. Lionel Shriver is a gifted writer. Both the plot and the individual sentences propelled me through this 500-page plus chunkster at a clipping rate. A couple tidbits:

Yet Irina had once tucked away, she wasn’t sure when or why, that happiness is almost definitely a condition of which you are not aware of at the time. To inhabit your own contentment is to be wholly present, with no orbiting satellite to take clinical readings of the state of the planet. Conventionally, you grow conscious of happiness at the very point that it begins to elude you. . . . It is a bracketing assessment, a label only decisively pasted onto an era once it is over.

Boredom with routine is a luxury, and one unfailingly brief. You are awarded a discrete number of mornings, and are well advised to savor every single awakening that isn’t marred by arthritis or Alzheimer’s. You will drink only so many cups of coffee. You will read only so many newspapers, and not one edition more.

Fascinating book. Unfortunately, it tended to be repetitive, particularly towards the end. Some brow beating occurred. It did. The book was stronger at the beginning when it didn’t wax so preachy. Also, some of the relationship ideas embraced by Irina seemed to be dated from around 1954. Still, this book intrigued me, made me think about life and relationships, and has stuck with me.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver [rating:3]

Other Reviews:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Of Books and Bicycles


Have you ever wondered what your life would be like had you chosen a different path? Do we always want what we can’t have? Why are the choices that we didn’t make so appealing in retrospect? How much of our choice about the person we end up in a relationship with has to do with fate and how much has to do with the decisions we make over the course of our lives? And are the decisions you might make in your 20s different from the choices you’d make in your 30s, 40s, or 50s?


The premise of this book is so fascinating, I think, because part of human nature is to spend at least some down time pondering “what if.” What if I had chosen that college over this college? That man over this man? That plane ticket over this plane ticket? A corollary to the “what if” idea is the “grass is greener” idea. We tend to want what we can’t have. Somehow, the grass over there always seems greener than the grass over here.

Ultimately, I believe, and I think this book reflects, that life is a meeting of choices and circumstance. We have control over our lives, but then again we don’t. Somethings are simply beyond our control. Still, we can direct our lives, make good decisions, ward against the unknown. Happiness comes, for Irina, when she stops wondering what if and decides to live in the moment. This ability to “let go” gets easier, I think, as we get older. The trivial things like dirty dishes seem less important as time goes on. After all, each of us is awarded a finite time in which to live, and not one day more.