A layered and unflinching portrait of infidelity—with a narrative appropriately split in two.
In the opening chapter, Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin, 2003, etc.) introduces three people suffering mid-life crises in late-1990s London: Irena, a children’s book illustrator; her longtime romantic partner, Lawrence, a researcher at a political think tank; and Ramsey, a wealthy snooker pro who’s recently divorced Jude, Irena’s former professional partner. The four used to celebrate Ramsey’s birthday together, but Lawrence is traveling and Jude is out of the picture, leaving Irena and Ramsey to while away an evening together. A polite dinner soon drifts into heavy flirting, and from there the story breaks into two narratives with alternating chapters: In one, Irena pursues an affair with Ramsey and leaves Lawrence; in the other, she restrains herself and stays loyal. Each choice has its downside. Ramsey, despite his outwardly suave demeanor, proves to be a childish lout who’s prone to jealousy, drinks heavily and is tormented about his failure to win the national snooker championship; the sex is great (and crucial for keeping the peace), but his demands on Irena’s time and emotions threaten her professional and family relationships. Life with Lawrence is more stable, but she’s dogged by an urge to break away from humdrum domestic rhythms and increasingly suspicious of Lawrence’s behavior. Shriver pulls off a tremendous feat of characterization: Following Irena across 500-plus pages and two timelines offers remarkable insight into her work habits, her thought processes, the way she argues with friends and family, the small incidents of everyday life that make her feel either trapped or free. Better yet, the author is more interested in raising questions about love and fidelity than in pat moralizing.
Readers will wonder which choice was best for Irena, but Shriver masterfully confounds any attempt to arrive at a sure answer.