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Literature / The Post Birthday World

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The Post-Birthday World is a novel written in 2007 by Lionel Shriver, of We Need to Talk About Kevin fame. Irina Macgovern’s destiny hinges on a single kiss. Whether she gives into its temptation will determine whether she stays with her reliable partner Lawrence, or runs off with Ramsey, a hard-living snooker player. Employing a parallel universe structure, Shriver spins Irina’s competing futures with two drastically different men.

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If love is always about trade-offs―if every romantic prospect is flawed―how can we ever know whom to choose?


This book provides examples of:

  • Author Avatar: To an extent - Irina, like Shriver, is an American living in London and Irina is half-Russian, which Shriver studied at university. Also like Irina, she ended a long-term relationship because she fell for a more 'creative type', thus inspiring the plot of this novel.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Bethany is mentioned in passing a few times, but her importance only becomes clear late into the book.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Irina's mother Raisa expresses disapproval of Ramsey when Irina takes him to meet the family for Christmas, but ironically she flirts outrageously with him in the Lawrence timeline when they meet during the book award.
  • Fatal Flaw: Irina's passiveness and need for a man to take care of her is this in both timelines - Her reluctance to confront Lawrence about his odd behaviour means he is able to get away with his affair with Bethany for five years, and her following Ramsey around on tournaments and letting him throw money on lavish things mean she's thoroughly unprepared when Ramsey gets sick and the money disappears.
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  • For Wantofa Nail: Whether or not Irina gives into temptation and kisses Ramsey is the point in which the novel splits into the Lawrence side, or the Ramsey side.
  • Formerly Fit: Irina's sister Tatyana used to obsessively train to be a ballerina like their mother, but didn't make the cut. Thus she cheerfully gave up on being a dancer and devoted herself to being a housewife, which included eating a lot of her own cooking.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Russian is scattered throughout the novel, as Irina is bilingual. Her mother often pretends not to understand English so she has an excuse to show off in Russian.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ramsey is very jealous of Irina's lingering affection for her ex and prone to pick fights over it. Irina doesn't help matters by meeting up for coffee with Lawrence when Ramsey is away on snooker tournaments, or inviting him to an award ceremony when her children's book is shortlisted.
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  • Inelegant Blubbering: Whenever she argues with her partner, Irina is very prone to doing this.
  • Manly Tears: Ramsey, when Irina miscarries.
  • Motor Mouth: Irina tends to ramble on when she's nervous.
  • Rant-Inducing Slight: Lawrence repeatedly talking over a snooker match makes Irina explode at him, finally clueing him in that something is very wrong, thus leading her confessing that she's fallen in love with Ramsey. Ironically, in the Lawrence side, Lawrence is the one who explodes at Irina, because in this version, he's the one who cheats on her.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Fairly obviously, Irina's choice in partner, with priggish Lawrence as the Blue and temperamental Ramsey as the Red.
    • Funnily enough, Ramsey's ex, Jude, is the Red Oni to Irina's Blue.
  • Single-Issue Wonk: For Ramsey, his is snooker, which he's been playing since he was eight years old and seems at a loss about how to talk about anything else. For Lawrence it's politics and he is very uncompromising and stubborn in his opinions.
  • Split Timelines Plot: The plot switches back and forth between a timeline in which Irina stays with her long-term boyfriend and one in which she leaves him for another man she had dinner with in the prologue. The book follows the many different ways each man impacts on her life after this point, often covering the same event (e.g. a dinner with her family) with the differences highlighted. Unusually, it ends the same way in a shared epilogue: at the end of the story she breaks up with one man and the other dies, so she is left single at that point regardless. Naturally, she thinks that she made the right decision either way.
  • The Topic of Cancer: Ramsey ends up diagnosed with prostate cancer late in the novel. He doesn't make it.
  • Trademark Favourite Food: Irina makes a bowl of popcorn every night without fail throughout her relationship with Lawrence when they sit down to watch TV on an evening. When she doesn't, you know something is wrong.
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