Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kissing and Telling - or Not

The members of our book club are busy people, so we generally limit the size of the books we choose to be sure that as many of us as possible can finish them before the discussion.  This month, however, we picked a longer work than usual (about 500 words in paperback), and only about half of us finished it.  I really had to push myself to get it all read, not because of the length, but because by 2/3 of the way through I was so disgusted with the characters that I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

The book was The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, and it’s actually two books in one.  The protagonist is Irina McGovern, an American graphic artist living in London with her long-time lover, a think-tank wonk specializing in terrorism.  Early in the book Irina is tempted to kiss a British friend on his birthday; the rest of the novel follows Irina through two alternate futures, one in which she gives way to temptation and one in which she does not.

This is one of those books that none of us actually enjoyed reading, but that generated a very lively discussion.  Sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, the author examines what attracts us to members of the opposite sex; what constitutes true intimacy; how tradeoffs between talent, money, and power can enhance or destroy a relationship; and whether trying to change one’s real self for someone else can ever be successful.  In the end, although Irina is beautiful, talented, and desperate to please the man she’s with, both of her possible futures end bleakly, at least in her eyes.  That wasn’t particularly surprising, since no matter how well things went for Irina during the course of the story(s), she never cheered up.

My main quibble with this book, in fact, is that the tone throughout is one of grim irony.  The bitter discussions between the main characters would have been easier to slog through with an occasional leavening of fun. (That's FUN, Lionel, not just sex - got it?)  After all, these characters were reasonably well and well-off members of the middle class who supposedly loved one another; surely they would have had a few laughs during the years covered by the novel.  One would think that a female author capable of changing her name from Mary Ann to Lionel must have a sense of humor tucked away somewhere, but perhaps that choice was also informed by irony instead.

An interesting book, but not one that I’ll be reading again.

"...the author is more interested in raising questions about love and fidelity than in pat moralizing." ~Kirkus Review on The Post-Birthday World (quoted on the dust jacket)

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