Post-Birthday World (Shriver)

The Post-Birthday World
Lionel Shriver, 2007
528 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061187896

In this eagerly awaited new novel, Lionel Shriver, the Orange Prize-winning author of the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, delivers an imaginative and entertaining look at the implications, large and small, of whom we choose to love. Using a playful parallel-universe structure, The Post-Birthday World follows one woman's future as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men.

Children's book illustrator Irina McGovern enjoys a quiet and settled life in London with her partner, fellow American expatriate Lawrence Trainer, a smart, loyal, disciplined intellectual at a prestigious think tank. To their small circle of friends, their relationship is rock solid. Until the night Irina unaccountably finds herself dying to kiss another man: their old friend from South London, the stylish, extravagant, passionate top-ranking snooker player Ramsey Acton. The decision to give in to temptation will have consequences for her career, her relationships with family and friends, and perhaps most importantly the texture of her daily life.

Hinging on a single kiss, this enchanting work of fiction depicts Irina's alternating futures with two men temperamentally worlds apart yet equally honorable. With which true love Irina is better off is neither obvious nor easy to determine, but Shriver's exploration of the two destinies is memorable and gripping. Poignant and deeply honest, written with the subtlety and wit that are the hallmarks of Shriver's work, The Post-Birthday World appeals to the what-if in us all. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—May 18, 1957
Where—Gastonia, North Carolina, USA
Education—B.A., Barnard College; M.F.A., Columbia
Awards—Orange Prize
Currently—lives in London, England.

Lionel Shriver (aka Margaret Ann Shriver) is an American journalist and author born to a deeply religious family (her father is a Presbyterian minister). At age seven, Shriver decided she would be a writer. At age 15, she informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel because she did not like the name she had been given, and as a tomboy felt that a conventionally male name fitted her better.

Shriver was educated at Barnard College, Columbia University (BA, MFA). She has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and currently in London. She is married to jazz drummer Jeff Williams.

Shriver had published six novels before the 2003 We Need to Talk About Kevin. She called it as her "make or break" novel., referring to the years of "professional disappointment" and "virtual obscurity" preceding it.

Its publication in 2003, We Need to Talk About Kevin made Shriver a household name. Beautiful and deeply disturbing, the novel asks one of the toughest questions a parent can ask of themselves: have I failed my child? When Kevin Khatchadourian murders nine of his classmates at school, his vibrant mother Eva is forced to face, openly, her son's monstrous acts and her role in them.

Interestingly enough, her agent rejected the manuscript. Shriver shopped her book around on her own, and eight months later it was picked up by a smaller publishing company. The book created a good deal of controversy, but achieved success through word of mouth. As Publisher's Weekly comments, "A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far." Kevin won Shriver the 2005 Orange Prize.

Her experience as a journalist is wide having written for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Economist, contributed to the Radio Ulster program Talkback and many other publications. In July 2005, Shriver began writing a column for the Guardian, in which she has shared her opinions on maternal disposition within Western society, the pettiness of British government authorities, and the importance of libraries (she plans to will whatever assets remain at her death to the Belfast Library Board, out of whose libraries she checked many books when she lived in Northern Ireland).

The Post-Birthday World was issued in 2007. The novel uses a parallel-universe structure follows one woman's future as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men. In 2010 Shriver released So Much for That, which was subsequently named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Her work The New Republic came out in 2012, and Big Brother, inspired by the morbid obesity of one of her brothers, in 2013. (Adapted from Barnes & Noble and Wikipedia [retrieved 6/11/2013].)

Book Reviews
Although the decision to depict Ramsey and Lawrence as such polar opposites makes for a schematic story line, this flaw is steamrollered by Ms. Shriver’s instinctive knowledge of her heroine’s heart and mind and her ability to limn Irina’s very different relationships with these two men. Relying on the same gift for psychological portraiture that she used in her award-winning 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ms. Shriver makes palpable both Irina’s magnetic attraction to Ramsey and the ease and comfort she feels with Lawrence.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Lionel Shriver's wonderful new novel, her latest since the prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, creates parallel universes that indulge all our what-if speculations. Spared any fork-in-the-road choices, Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator, can have her beefcake and eat it too. A professional, independent woman not enamored of feminist bumper stickers, Irina admits, "The only thing I can't live without is a man." In this case, Shriver grants her two.
Mameve Medwed - Washington Post

Shriver is very obviously a perceptive observer and clever chronicler of the human condition, in all its messy, unresolved glory.
Sunday Times (London)

Shriver writes with much intelligence and wryness....The twofold nature of the plot...makes for enlightening reading.
Christian Science Monitor

Extraordinary...Before it was co-opted and trivialized by chick lit, romantic love was a subject that writers from Flaubert to Tolstoy deemed worthy of artistic and moral scrutiny. This is the tradition into which Shriver’s novel fits.
Entertainment 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.
Publishers Weekly

Irena is saddled with the responsibility of taking out an old friend for his birthday.... To Irena's surprise, she feels an urgent attraction to Ramsey on their evening out and is stuck with the inevitable question: should she or shouldn't she? ... In alternating chapters, she details what happens when Irena takes the erotic plunge with Ramsey and then what happens when she doesn't. The technique works surprisingly well. Sometimes one story is more engaging than the other, but the two versions are seamlessly knit, and in the end both are convincing and beautifully told. Highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

A layered and unflinching portrait of infidelity—with a narrative appropriately split in two.... Shriver pulls off a tremendous feat of characterization: Following Irena across 500-plus pages and two timelines offers remarkable insight into her work habits, her thought processes, the way she argues with friends and family, the small incidents of everyday life that make her feel either trapped or free. Better yet, the author is more interested in raising questions about love and fidelity than in pat moralizing. Readers will wonder which choice was best for Irena, but Shriver masterfully confounds any attempt to arrive at a sure answer.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. In The Post-Birthday World, we get to see Irina lead two very different lives based on a choice she makes between two men. Have you ever wondered what your life would be like had you chosen a different path?

2. In each universe that Irina inhabits, she is drawn to the man she let go. Do we always want what we can't have? Why are the choices that we didn't make so appealing in retrospect?

3. In the characters of Lawrence and Ramsey, Irina is offered the choice between two opposites: where Lawrence is predictable, Ramsey is wild; where Ramsey is extravagant, Lawrence is disciplined. Do you think that by casting the men so differently Shriver is portraying general male stereotypes, or is there some truth in these characters? What are the pros and cons of each man as a partner? Do women prefer one type to another at different times in their lives? Why?

4. Is Irina the same person in her relationship with Lawrence as she is in her relationship with Ramsey? Do you think that the person you're with determines the person you are, or would you be the same person no matter with whom you're in a relationship?

5. Irina is happy and unhappy in both universes, with both men. Who do you think Irina is happiest with? If she had both men before her and could see her different lives with each, which man would she choose? Which man would you choose to be with?

6. Irina is a self-sufficient and highly successful woman, yet throughout The Post-Birthday World she believes that her ultimate happiness will come from a man. Does Irina's recognition that she needs a man in her life characterize her as a throwback to a pre-feminist era, or can she need a man in her life and still be self-actualized?

7. Children are completely absent from this story. How does this affect the characters, their decisions, and their relationships?

8. 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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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