Tag Archives: The Post-Birthday World

Q&A with Lionel Shriver, author of THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD

A few weeks ago, EDIWTB held its second online book club, on Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World.  Lionel was kind enough to respond to some EDIWTB reader questions. Personally, I found these very satisfying and a lot of fun to read. Thank you. Lionel!

Here are the questions and answers:

1. Why did you choose to use major world events such as the death of Princess Diana and 9/11 as benchmarks within the story? Were they to give readers a frame of reference, or to show that even our reaction to big events are colored by the choices we’ve made?

Major world events punctuate one’s personal life, even if they may take place in the background.  My own experience of the world is always influenced by what’s happening in the newspaper.  This novel is set in a specific set of years.  Any realistic novel covering 1997 in Britain surely has to acknowledge the death of Diana.  Any realistic novel covering 2001 anywhere in the world surely has to acknowledge 9/11.

Otherwise, yes, I found these two events useful in illuminating the different ways that the two men deal with them.  Irina’s experience of world events—the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, for example—is heavily affected by whom she’s in love with.

2. Children and motherhood play a very small role in this book – in the Ramsey scenario, Irina has a miscarriage, and in the Lawrence scenario, the couple is infertile.  Neither one of these developments seems to bother Irina particularly.  My question is – did you choose not to bring children into the plot in order to make both the relationships and the ethical choices less complicated? Or did you simply want Irina not to be a mother?

Two reasons: structurally, I wanted to bring the two parallel worlds together at the end.  If one of these relationships produced a child, the two worlds would never come together.  If they both produced children, these would be different children, and again the worlds could never come together.  So I needed to devise two different routes to the same result.

Second reason?  My last book was We Need to Talk About Kevin.  I have done exhaustive—and exhausting—publicity for that novel since 2003.  That novel took apart motherhood in forensic detail.  The very last topic I had any interest in writing about was motherhood.

3. I read a review of the book that suggests that your ending shows that you have a preference for one of Irina’s choices over the other. Is that true? Do you admit to having a "favorite" Irina?

Don’t believe reviews.  No, I really don’t have a preference for one of these men over the other.  One of the pleasures of writing the novel was being able to have them both.  However, many readers have strong preferences for one over the other, which is just swell.  Happily, the readers from whom I’ve heard do not agree with which man Irina is better off, but tend to cleave straight down the middle.  Anyway, determining what Irina should have done at the end of the first chapter—given into temptation or resisted Ramsey’s charms—is up to you.

4. What was your original inspiration for the story?

I had to make a similar choice in my own life between two wonderful but drastically different men. I was on such a knife edge as to what to do that for some time after I made the choice I was haunted by an alternative universe in which I had chosen the other chap instead.  That’s where I got the idea for the structure: it mirrored my own emotional experience of second-guessing myself.

5. What has surprised you most about people’s reaction to The Post-Birthday World?

How many other women—men, too, actually—have had to make similar difficult choices in their romantic lives, and the degree to which Ramsey and Lawrence uncannily correspond to archetypes in readers’ real-life relationships.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve had a reader in a signing queue confide, “I left a Lawrence for a Ramsey, and it was a disaster!” or “I stuck it out with a Lawrence and have never stopped regretting that I let my Ramsey go,” etc.

6. I’m still stuck on the facing the wall sex, and never knowing in all those years what Lawrence wanted, and then the switch to hot incredible sex with our favorite snooker player…any basis in reality? Was it difficult to write such personal things.  How did you deal with that?   

Writing about sex is always tricky.  Another writer a long time ago warned me that “however much you make up, readers will always assume that sex scenes are autobiographical.”  I’m sure protests to the contrary would fall on deaf ears. 

I don’t think it’s important whether this or that is from “real life.”  It’s only important that these scenes resonate with other people’s experience.  So far, I’ve got the impression that they do. 


I know I am really enjoying a book when I find myself thinking about it at odd times throughout the day (in the shower, while walking the dog, etc.) and trying to cram in pages here and there whenever I can so that I can get back into the story as soon as possible.  Such was the case with the current EDIWTB online book club selection, The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. I have a feeling that this is a book that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Shriver’s inventive novel opens with Irina, its fortyish protagonist, facing a decision: should she remain faithful to Lawrence, her steadfast policy wonk partner of ten years, or should she kiss another man – Ramsey, a dashing yet immature snooker player? The first chapter ends at that crossroads, and from there, alternating chapters relate the two different worlds that could follow – the one in which she resists temptation, and the one in which she gives in.  Of course, Irina’s life turns out very differently depending on which road she takes, thus following the classic “what if…” daydream to its natural conclusion.

Shriver creates a detailed, convincing, flawed, yet rewarding life for Irina under both scenarios, which only makes reading this book more complex and almost tortuous, in a good way. I found it difficult to condemn either of her choices, or either of her partners.  The two men were often infuriating, yet also seemed to redeem themselves in often surprising ways.  Thus, if one of Shriver’s intentions was to convey the messy unpredictability of life and the danger of seeing things in black and white, she succeeded.

I love Shriver’s writing – eloquent, insightful, funny, rich. My copy is full of dog-eared pages marking passages I want to re-read – passages that were so well-written that they took my breath away.

Readers of The Post-Birthday World  will also notice the deftness with which Shriver sets up small parallels between the two worlds – lines of dialogue, for example, that are repeated in the two “competing” chapters (though sometimes spoken by two different characters), or identical conversations or plot points that are treated differently depending on which world we’re in (the Ramsey world or the Lawrence world).  Even something as simple as which dress Irina wears to the same event (or her partner’s reaction to that dress) takes on great significance in each post-birthday world, especially when contrasted to how it takes place in the other world.

While I was reading the book, one thing kept bothering me. I felt that Shriver had taken some license with Lawrence (as is her right, of course) – in one scenario, he seemed to have one personality, and in the other, he was very different. This bothered me because I felt like she was stacking the decks in favor of one choice vs. the other, that she was prejudicing the reader.

I was extremely lucky to be able to attend a book reading by Lionel Shriver last Friday night at Politics & Prose, and even luckier to be able to tell her in person about this reservation I had about the book. Her answer was perfect, and enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the book. As she explained, the book is not just about Irina; it’s also about the other characters in the book and how they are affected by Irina.  Her actions toward them – in this case, the reception she gives Lawrence when he returned from the business trip that provided her the opportunity to be alone with Ramsey, ultimately affected his path, as well as hers. Shriver intentionally played with how Irina’s actions changed the lives of the others in the book.

Here are some other things I learned at the book reading:

  • She wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, instead of writing about one post-birthday world in its entirety and then the next. This made it possible for her to set up the parallel narrative constructs that I mentioned above.
  • In writing the book, Shriver was interested in “the little stuff” – how who you are with affects not just your happiness but everything in your life, down to your relationship with your mother, what it’s like to go to the supermarket, your success in your career, etc.
  • The last chapter, in which Irina meets Lawrence for a drink at Club Gascon, is meant to conclude both post-birthday worlds, just like the first chapter opened them both. (Did you notice that when you were reading it?)
  • Shriver doesn’t like reading non-fiction and will only do it if “a gun is put to [her] head”.
  • Shriver was born in America and doesn’t speak with a British accent.
  • In England, “snooker” rhymes with “euchre”, while in America, it rhymes with “looker”.

I could go on and on about this book – it seems that every day I have new thoughts about it, new insights, and new appreciation for Shriver’s writing and the perfect construction of this wonderful book. But I have written enough and I’d love to hear what other EDIWTB readers have to say. So please add your comments below, and if you have any questions for Lionel Shriver that you’d like her to answer, add them to your comment or email them to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com and I will send them along to her. She has promised to answer them in a later post.

Online Book Club: THE POST BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver

Exciting news! EDIWTB is having its second online book club. The book this time is one that I have wanted to read for quite a while: The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. From Amazon, here’s a synopsis:

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.

Reviews of this book have been very positive. In fact, Entertainment Weekly named The Post-Birthday World its top fiction pick of 2007. It said:

Chapter by chapter, these two richly imagined scenarios play themselves out, eventually meeting up again some 500 pages later. Which was the better choice for Irina — the steamy lover Ramsey or the steady companion Lawrence? Shriver playfully suggests answers, only to snatch them back again.

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. In 50 years, we’ll still be wild about Harry. And a lucky handful of readers may stumble across The Post-Birthday World and wonder why they’ve never heard of it.

Kristen of Delightfully Dawgmatic blog posted here on EDIWTB that The Post-Birthday World was the best book she read in 2007.

You can browse the first few pages of the book here at its Harper Perennial webpage.

And now for the good news: Harper Perennial has agreed to send review copies to readers of this blog who want to read The Post-Birthday World and participate in the second EDIWTB online book club. (Thank you Harper Perennial!).

So, if you’re interested in reading this book and then joining an online discussion in about a month, send me your mailing address ASAP at gweiswasser@gmail.com. Harper Collins will send the books out around the end of this week, and we will have a discussion here at this site on Thursday, March 6.

Please join in! I look forward to discussing the book next month. And thanks again to Jennifer at Harper Perennial for helping facilitate the book club.

Added on March 10: The online book club is taking place today at http://www.everydayiwritethebookblog.com///2008/03/the-post-birthd.html.