Irina McGovern, expatriate American illustrator in London, is tempted to kiss Ramsey Acton, a passionate snooker player. The narrative splits in two, one strand following a life in which she does kiss him, and one following her as she stays with her long term ‘safe’ partner, Lawrence Trainer.
At 515 pages, it’s a long novel, and despite covering almost a decade from the mid-nineties, it doesn’t feel epic in a way that would justify that length. Instead, at times, the narrative seems to lack direction as we follow the minutaie of Irina’s life in its two manifestations. Perhaps a brave enough editor could have convinced Shriver to pare and focus it.
Yet it’s a novel which in detail contains so much brilliant insight into the fabric of everyday life and relationships. Shriver is wise, thoughtful and interesting. She describes so well what it’s like to stay at a hotel, cook dinner, go shopping, attend an award ceremony.
As you might expect, Irina’s two lives contain (sometimes unexpected) parallels (and contrasts). So, for example, in one chapter she will rail against the routine of everyday life, while in the other she will reflect on how great they are. In one chapter, Ramsey will buy her mother a car; in its parallel, Lawrence buys Irina a car. It’s a device which is interesting yet sometimes contrived. My biggest disappoinment – SPOILER ALERT – is that the final chapter has her two lives converging at Ramsey’s funeral; in both she ends up back with Lawrence, even though in one she left him and in the other he ends up leaving her.
My favourite part of the book are the two children’s books which Irina creates in her two parallel lives, each book reflecting an aspect of the novel we are reading. In one, a young boy becomes a snooker player and always wonders what he could have been if he stayed at school. In the other, a boy gives up a blossoming friendship to be loyal to his best friend, only to have his best friend leave him for the third boy. The intertextuality and dramatic irony are delightful, as well as the vividness with which Shriver creates these cryptobooks.