The love triangle of Irina McGovern follows two parallel directions, one with a world-famous snooker player, and the other her longtime intellectual partner and mate. Irina McGovern writes and illustrates children's books. She is an ex-pat living in London with her thoughtful, smart husband Lawrence Trainer who works at a think tank. Irina's life seems happy enough with Lawrence, but the novel presents us with two alternating plot lines. In the first, she stays with her husband, but in the second she has a love affair with Ramsey Acton, a snooker player (it's similar to pool but different gameplay and it's very popular in the UK).
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After the first chapter, the parallel structure of the novel is introduced. Irina and her friend Jude each year have dinner with Jude's now ex-husband Ramsey Acton, the famous snooker player. After the dinner, and at Ramsey's house, everyone smokes week. Without her husband Lawrence, who is away on a business trip, Irina is tempted to kiss Randy Acton. In one version of the story, she does kiss him and has a lurid love affair, but in the other she resists, and stays with Lawrence. The novel has two chapter 2s and two chapter 3s, and so forth, to indicate the parallel story line.
In the Lawrence/Ramsey storyline, Irina is the model housewife, and she devotes her time to making delicious tasting Kung Pao Chicken. With amusing anecdotes about the Tube, and various references to urban life in London, Irina and Lawrence live a comfortable life. Irina does wonder why she did not succumb to Ramsey, but in this story-line, she is focused on her book, and Lawrence is a dependable mate (they have been together for ten years before the novel begins). Lawrence is a kind of know-it all, and he seems to be a bit controlling in Irina's life.
In the Ramsey/Irina story line, Irina hobnobs with Ramsey on his worldwide Snooker tour. She goes to his tournaments, and plays the part of Snooker fan girl, standing by her man. In this story-line, Irina is not controlled as much as she was by Lawrence; she can have an extra drink or smoke a cigarette without someone criticizing her. Irina learns the ins-and-outs of the game (as does the reader). Irina spends so much time with Ramsey, that she neglects her children's book career. She misses deadlines, and is unable to concentrate on her work, and in the end loses a really important book deal. While the sex life with Ramsey is very exciting, Irina's life becomes wrapped up in his (even though they are world's apart when it comes to personality and interest).
Both story-lines have points of convergence; in each, we see how Irina deals with the death of Princess Diana, and in both story-lines the tragedy of September 11 is depicted. The ending of the novel is ambiguous. Irina's fate is never disclosed outright. Who does she end up with, is it Ramsey or Lawrence? The novel resists the temptation to tie up loose ends, and it is up to the reader to decide what was the better path.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like the idea of speculating on the many versions of one life. It is human nature to think "what if?", and Shriver's novel embodies this idea.
Best scene in story:
I liked the scene where Irina goes to visit her mother in Brighton Beach, a seashore neighborhood in Brooklyn. We learn more about Irina's Russian-American descent, and I think it showcases how the novel is really about Irina more than anything. The men she chooses to love almost seem irrelevant. This section is a diversion from the main plot line of the novel, for we see Irina outside of the London story.
Opinion about the main character:
Irina should have chosen a better man than either Lawrence or Ramsey. The novel has a clever dual structure, but after awhile it is tiresome to read another chapter about Irina going through the same event but with Lawrence, instead of Ramsey. I felt like Shriver wanted to write two novels, one about a woman named Irina who lives with a man named Lawrence, and the other about a woman named Irina and a man named Ramsey.