I'm between books right now.
While that might not sound like a noteworthy event, it is an unusual occurrence for me. Usually I have two or three books on the go at any given time, not to mention various books-in-waiting.
Last week, post-Moonwalk and more than a little weary, I was wallowing in Lionel Shriver's latest: The Post-Birthday World. I finished it in the wee hours of Saturday night, even though we had returned home late from a 50th birthday party. Three days -- and I still haven't started a new book! Perhaps it is my way of paying homage, but I feel almost reluctant to begin another (probably less satisfying) reading experience
For the first time in a while, I experienced that incomparable pleasure of being totally sucked in to a fictional world. It really was one of those books-that-you-can't-put-down for me. Every chance I got (or took), I was sneaking chapters. I read while making a Red Velvet cake for my daughter's 14th birthday. I read while catching up with the washing and ironing. I got into bed early, in order to read; but then stayed up too late, because I couldn't stop reading. The characters intrigued me; the details delighted me; and the plot gripped me to the point that I could barely restrain myself from galloping through it as fast as possible. I would catch myself skimming, because I was so anxious to know what was going to happen . . . and then rereading, because there was so much to admire in the writing itself.
The book's plot (and philosophy, perhaps?) hinges on the idea that a single decision can make one's life spool in an entirely different direction. In this case, the decision is a kiss. Move in, or turn away? (Has anyone else been there before?) The protagonist, a Russian/American woman named Irina, has two possible destinies -- one with her long-time partner Lawrence, and another with Ramsey, casual friend suddenly turned into crush. In alternating chapters, the novel presents both scenarios -- and not only does the reader get to explore how the same incidents or details get played out in different ways, but also, inevitably, to judge which "choice" seems to be the better one. If you've ever read Shriver, you will know her to be a rather dark and complicated thinker -- nothing is ever simple. Because of the different possibilities, the novel actively engages the reader in a constant act of evaluation -- and then reevaluation. Instead of taking sides, the novel allows the reader to explore her (or his) own ideas and value systems. What is more important in a relationship: comfort or danger? Stability or excitement? Passion or friendship? Sameness or difference?
This idea has been explored before -- the movie Sliding Doors comes to mind -- but it is such a great plot device that I wonder why it hasn't been used more often. Without giving too much away, one of the ideas that Shriver plays around with is that of destiny. For instance, are certain aspects of our existence going to play out -- no matter which decisions we make along the way? And can we really turn away from the turning-points in our lives, or will they impact us no matter what? In other words, even total passivity is a choice that can directly impact the course of one's life. You can turn away from the kiss, but the desire still infects you -- and perhaps is just as powerful for being unfulfilled.
When I was in college, I can remember having to answer the question What do you fear? in a philosophy class. Only 20, with most of my life in front of me, I can remember my immediate answer: Regret. I fear choosing the wrong path. I am someone who is sometimes haunted (and sometimes just intrigued) by other lives and other possibilities. I am also someone who remains amazed by the idea that life can turn on a dime.
At 25, I agreed to meet my future husband on a blind date. I had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend; I was supposed to be buckling down to my PhD program; I wasn't looking for a serious relationship at all. My first thought was No, but I was persuaded by the single detail of an English accent. As a lifelong Anglophile, the English aspect of this unknown man swung my decision. And that, as Frost said, has made all of the difference. Two years later I was married, pregnant, and living in England. But even if I had said No to this particular English man, would that part of me -- the part that yearned for a different culture than the one I was born into -- still have guided my destiny? It seems likely.
Shriver is an expatriate American, who has lived in London for many years. In a "Meet the Author" piece at the end of the novel, she describes her first babyish words for "I want out" as a sort of "running theme" in her life. I suppose that this compulsion is what leads people into lives which are really not their own. I think that it also may have quite a bit to do with writing (and reading, for that matter) . . . for what better chance do we have to escape ourselves, and inhabit someone else?