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Lionel Shriver's wonderful new novel, her latest since the prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, creates parallel universes that indulge all our what-if speculations. Spared any fork-in-the-road choices, Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator, can have her beefcake and eat it too. A professional, independent woman not enamored of feminist bumper stickers, Irina admits, "The only thing I can't live without is a man." In this case, Shriver grants her two.
The first, Lawrence Trainer, a sweetly geeky terrorism expert, offers tranquil domesticity; Irina fixes nightly bowls of popcorn while they watch BBC snooker tournaments, cooks voluptuous if economical meals and enjoys reliable same-side-of-the-bed, same-position sex. Though not officially married, so entrenched are the pair they might as well be. "Some friends regarded Irina-and-Lawrence as a factual matter," Shriver writes, "like the existence of France."
For more than nine years, "monogamy had been effortless" -- until the second man turns up. He's Ramsey Acton, dazzling celebrity snooker champion and husband of Irina's collaborator, Jude. Every year on Ramsey's birthday, Irina and Lawrence dine out with Ramsey and Jude. One July, Lawrence, away on business, encourages Irina to meet Ramsey, newly divorced, for the traditional birthday ritual. After four sakes, a deluxe platter of sashimi, cognac and a joint, Irina watches Ramsey play snooker and thinks, "If Ramsey didn't kiss her, she was going to die."
The rest of the story pivots on this will-they-or-won't-they as the novel splits into alternating chapters; in one, they kiss; in another, she turns away. Who is Irina's Mr. Right? In excessive, often obsessive, detail, Shriver explores Irina's life with each candidate through the quotidian and across a larger political and social landscape that includes Bosnia, the death of Princess Diana and 9/11. One chapter shows Irina as too cocooned in her love nest to notice outside events; its alternate has her relate the fall of the Twin Towers to her own predicament: "Today of all days it should have been possible to weep the whole day through, but it wasn't. The fact that she had sobbed for whole evenings at a go over the loss of one boyfriend yet now found it too demanding to whimper over the loss of multitudes for more than two or three minutes was just one of those ugly facts about herself that Irina would have to live with."
Shriver is a crackerjack chronicler of the lives of the self-absorbed; she understands the ties that bind and the ones that sunder. Studying Ramsey's depleted rooms after his divorce, Irina notes, "For women, marriages foreclosed often resulted in an accumulation of booty; for men, these failed projects of implausible optimism were more likely to manifest themselves in material lack. It was hard to resist the metaphorical impression that women got to keep the past itself, whereas men were simply robbed of it."
Shriver is equally clever at shifting around polar opposites and mirror images. Irina's book is a success; Irina's book is a failure. Ramsey's career takes off; it hits the skids. Lawrence is always loyal -- or is he? Though Ramsey can be difficult, earthmoving sex more than compensates. Soon enough, even that changes. No choice is perfect; no soulmate seizes center stage.
While the focus stays on Irina and her two men, the author serves up side dishes of politics, snooker lore and menu plans. Culinary metaphors abound: Ramsey's skin is "like one of those complex reduction sauces you get in upscale restaurants . . . and you can never quite figure out what's in it." Sentences sparkle with such mouth-watering descriptions of food that you'll want to run to the refrigerator. Lovely small portraits of Irina's larger-than-life Russian mother, her sister Tatyana and Ramsey's idiosyncratic competitors charm and enlighten.
As Irina learns that no matter what kind of man a woman picks, "she'll wonder if she wouldn't rather have the other," the accretion of details, the parsing of characters' angst, the little moments blown into big can seem like so much navel-gazing. However fascinating, the microscopic analysis of the two objects of Irina's affection can also be wearying. Nevertheless, the rewards for sticking with these 500-plus pages are as delicious as one of Irina's feasts.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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