THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins), 517 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
When faced with two paths that diverge in a wood (apologies to Robert Frost), there's a universal temptation to steamroll boldly along the one less travelled, sans regrets.
But for every "what if?" at an existential crossroads, there's a corresponding "what if I don't?" This parallel-universe fantasy is what Lionel Shriver explores in her follow-up to 05's Orange Prize-winning novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Shriver's tormented traveller is Irina McGovern, an American expat in London who spends her time illustrating children's books and basking in the flickering glow of a secure but banal partnership with prudish think tank genius Lawrence Trainer. Irina laces their meals with heady spices to balance the fact that the guy only fucks her, methodically, in the same spooned position three times a week.
Enter temptation in the form of brash (but gentlemanly) Brit Ramsey Acton, a champion snooker player, hedonist and the ex-husband of Irina's former friend-slash-collaborator.
When the two have a birthday meal while Lawrence is away on business, Irina finds herself inexplicably drawn to kissing Ramsey. Hello, crossroads.
Shriver unspools the "does she or doesn't she" scenarios in alternating chapters (remember the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors?), charting Irina's life on both sides of the coin. It's a neat idea, but the author fumbles.
Irina's character and the polar-opposite personas of her two beloveds are meticulously mapped out in engaging detail, but Shriver gets lazy in the parallel narratives. The two stories often resemble inverted versions of each other in a fashion that's as dull as it is implausible.
She's also heavy-handed with her metaphors and hammers home themes in obnoxiously obvious ways.
While the conclusion is satisfyingly subtle and open-ended, it fails to make up for the preceding 500 pages of drawn-out explicitness.
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