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Abandoned | The Post-Birthday World

From now on I'm going to be better at quitting books that do nothing for me. And I'll explain why. (No self-portrait, no R&R #. I prefer to do those kinds of reviews only for books I finish.)

Lionel Shriver
The Post-Birthday World
Abandoned: page 118/478

I decided to read THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver because I loved its concept and because I loved her novel WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.

In THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD, Irina is faced with a decision: to kiss Ramsey Acton, or not. Shriver examines both options, setting out Irina's destinies in both instances, in parallel. In the world where she kisses Ramsey, Irina leaves her long-time not-quite husband Lawrence and starts a new life with Ramsey, a passionate snooker player. In the other storyline, Irina does not kiss Ramsey, and chooses contentment with Lawrence, a reliable and thus predictable man. It is an in-depth look at that pesky "what if?" question we pose to ourselves when we do, or don't. It's not so much which is better as it is a look at two imperfect options, both of their ups and downs. Because that's life, and that's the difficulty of a dilemma.

The idea is most definitely interesting, and I get what Shriver tried to do here. But I feel it wasn't executed well. Double dialogues, double events – with opposing outcomes. What happens in storyline one does not happen in the now predictable second storyline. (I only made it as far as page 118, though, so it could be different later on.)

The text is also too dense, and that was my main problem with the book. Ten pages of THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD, and I had my fill for the week. While I appreciate the care Shriver takes in developing Irina's character and situation(s), I had enough of Irina's (double!) depressing introspection after 100 pages. The more pages I read, the more I felt inclined to shove a DVD of Sliding Doors in my DVD-player and watch that brilliant parallel-worlds story, instead.

Shriver knows a lot and writes a lot, too. One of many examples is a moment where Irina's fingers stiffen up from the cold due to Reynaud's disease; Shriver feels the condition is worth a plug and an explanation at some point in the narrative. Why does Shriver spend so much time on these kinds of details? It's almost self-indulgent: "Behold my (random) knowledge!"

Here comes the line us reviewers love to throw around: "Where was the editor?!" But I feel my complaint is valid here; as much as I admire Shriver's writing and her intelligence, this book is simply too "full", unnecessarily. THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD, although very insightful and raw in a sense, is a real chore to get through. It bored me, times twice – and when it didn't bore me, it depressed me. The text was not only dense, it was also intense. I felt relieved when put I it down; I dreaded having to pick it up again.

I'm not one to shy away from non-perky books which handle heavy subject material; but I don't wish to be depressed AND bored on top of it. Had I perhaps cared about the characters…but I didn't.

I tried liking Irina, but I just didn't find her sympathetic at all. Lawrence was dull. But the worst has to be Ramsey: overkill, embodied. His British was laid on too thick and it was inconsistent (multiple dialects blended together). Shriver had him blurting out lines by the likes of, "If I was a bird, I'd be fancied a right mug. (…) But I'm a bloke, so instead I'm Jack the Lad. Hand in the knickers, and it costing me no more than the odd chardonnay." The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, my dear fellow. I didn't believe him as a character and what's more, I couldn't see Irina falling for him. Ramsey didn't work for me. And so the entire book, which hinges on Ramsey and that one kiss, also didn't work for me.

Abandoning books

When I read about Jackie's resolution to start enjoying books more by abandoning the ones she doesn't find outstanding enough, I thought to myself: I don't do that nearly enough, myself.

Too often I'll labor through a book, not really feeling it. I'll put it away, I'll put it back on my TBR-pile, to try again later.

Because that has worked for me before. One of my favorite authors today is Jeffrey Eugenides. It took 3 attempts to finish The Virgin Suicides; 2 attempts to read Middlesex. It wasn't reluctant; I enjoyed these reads. Another author I've come to admire is Carol Shields. I once got halfway through Unless, and then I gave up on it, nearly selling it even – but something inside of me couldn't part with it just yet; I had to try again. And did. It was because of Unless that I tried Dressing up for the Carnival and bought that battered copy of The Stone Diaries in that wonderful old secondhand book store in New Orleans. Margaret Atwood is my "new Eugenides"; I've partially read both The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake. I aim to try again and finish them, soon.

It's not that I'm not enjoying these books; I do. But for me, it most likely would have been a case of timing. A lot of factors determine whether I enjoy a book. Is it well written? Does the story grip me? How are the characters developed? Is the author taking a stand? Does the book have a deeper meaning? Or is it delightfully fluffy?
Another factor is my mood. Books affect me; I sometimes pick books based on what I feel like. And sometimes, the fit isn't right. And that's usually when I put down a book to try it again at a better time.

But in other cases – and it's well time that I begin to acknowledge this to myself – I'm just not enjoying a book. Even if it is well written or suits my mood. Sometimes a book is just not for me. If a book fails to move me in any possible way (if it doesn't even infuriate me – a lot of books I have finished but didn't like at least allowed me to feel something, gave me food for thought)… then I need to be able to say, sometimes: "Just leave that one be, then." Remove it from the TBR-pile and face the facts: this isn't a book I'd try again. This one isn't for me. This does nothing for me.

I've only been able to do this once. To actually say to myself, "Abandoned. Done. No more. Not ever." I'm referring to the Dutch novel De Ontdekking van de Hemel (The Discovery of Heaven) by Harry Mulisch. A lot of Dutch readers agree that it's his best, no, the best of all Dutch literature. Not every Dutch person will agree, but a lot of us do love our Mulisch. I got halfway through before a dialogue formed in my mind, between Persistent Reader and Would Rather Quitter:

Reader: "It'll get better soon. I'm sure of it. So many readers love this. So must I."
Quitter: "How many more pages out of a 1000 is it going to take?"
Reader: "Just ten more. Or twenty. Any time now. It has to get better.""
Quitter: "Man, I'd much rather we'd read Palahniuk. Or Keyes. Heck, I'd much rather we'd read our neuropsych textbook. Come ONNNNN."
Reader: "I do not abandon books. I am Persistent."
Quitter: *pouty* "Please please please please…?"
Reader: "Well… I do have to admit even neuropsych is more interesting at this point. And I admit, the pretentious existentialism in this book nearly puts me to sleep. But surely…"
Quitter: "…please? There's gotta be a better way for us to spend our time."
Reader: "I do feel like we could have read three interesting / funny / glorious books during the time we've spent reading half of this one. We could read three interesting / funny / glorious books if I give up on the other half…"
Quitter: "Do it. Do it. Do it."
Reader: "Palahniuk… Keyes… Eugenides…"
Quitter: "Foer… Moore… Cunnigham… Do it."
Reader: "And done."

If I feel this way about any book, it probably means it's time to put it away for good. And I should also blog about it: after all, giving up on a book for good is in itself "an opinion". I don't want to spend my time reading books which do absolutely NOTHING for me. Good books I enjoy; books I don't find good at least allow me to develop my opinion. But books that don't do anything? I need to abandon those. Coming soon on R&R: the first "abandoned book" quick review.