Wow. Although I have only read three of Lionel Shriver’s books at this point, I am crushing on this woman hard. I rarely finish a book feeling as disturbed and I guess…satisfied…as I am right now. Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World first appeared on my radar in some book review that lumped it in with a bunch of other “9/11 themed” books in which normal events in characters’ lives are juxtaposed against one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century. (Between you, me and the lamp-post I find writers who use 9/11 to add some soul-crushery to an otherwise tepid book to be nothing short of lazy tossers with no respect for the rules.) Anyway, I avoided it at the time because I was sick of everyone cashing in. That turned out to be a fairly harmful choice as it kept me away from finding one of the authors I was destined to spend my life with.
The Post-Birthday World is the “Sliding Doors,” of fiction. One happily partnered woman in her 40s spends an evening with an attractive man who happens to be the exact opposite of the one she’s with. In one version she gives in to every impulse and jumps on him. In the other, she remains virtuous and returns to her life as she knows it. As we’ve all come to learn from Shriver, when it’s bad, it’s really bad. I’ve never found an author so capable of relaying utter devastation with a clinical yet completely emotional view. I found it difficult to read but impossible to put down. Cheating on the man you swore to be loyal to for someone more exciting is definitely a “bad’ thing to do, but in the course of deciding your own life, is it the “wrong” thing? Meanwhile, is staying with your solid but kind of boring mate out of emotion that’s 80% loyalty/ 20% love any better? In TBDW it’s actually up to you.
The crux of her story raises an issue that we all toy with: Was “that decision” the right one? Should I have married him? Should I have broken up with her? Should I have picked this job/quit that grad school/taken that class/attended that college/worn these pants today? The funny thing is, we never know. We never know which chain of events leads down the path of glory and which ones will take us to that dark scary place where the nicest bottle of wine tastes like ash and permission to drop $100 in a bookstore doesn’t even feel decadent. In TPBW, Shrive gives us both sides. Neither seem all that great to be true, and I honestly can’t tell which one is better or worse, but I definitely enjoyed seeing both ends.
For those of you unfamiliar with Shriver’s work, I wouldn’t start here. I would go with We Need To Talk About Kevin or Big Brother. If you haven’t already realized, she picks up uncomfortable topics and runs with them. She can be vulgar and vaguely racist. If I had to pick the author she reminds me of most, I would go with Updike or Cheever (John not Susan.) I love this kind of literature, but if it’s not your bag, you will hate this book.
I’m not entirely sure what to do on this Sunday night. Once again I am in a disturbed place whose only entry point is great literature. Cooking dinner seems rather strange at this point, so I think I’ll do what I always do on Sunday nights…cuddle up with HG and watch something on HBO Go.