In The Post-Birthday World, Shriver takes the concept of “what if” to a new level. Her main character, a children’s book illustrator, has the opportunity to cheat on her significant other after a birthday dinner with a mutual friend. From that pivotal moment on, alternating chapters of the novel trace the developments of her life in parallel universes: one in which she stayed loyal and the other in which she began an affair. I found the writing particularly impressive in the way that Shriver bends the details of certain events that happen in both lives, subtly changing things to reflect each world’s reality. I also liked the ending, which I won’t ruin for those who would like to read the book. Neither decision leads to perfect happiness or complete ruin. In one universe Irina, the illustrator, writes a children’s book that can be read two directions and tells two stories. In her book, the moral is that no matter what choices we make our lives will turn out okay in the end. In The Post-Birthday World, Shriver sends the same message.
Of course, this book prompted me to think about the choices I’ve made in my life and how things might have been different if I’d taken the other paths that have been presented to me along the way. Fortunately, I don’t have any key moments where I regret the decision I made, but that doesn’t completely eliminate the wondering at times.
I’d say the biggest decision I wonder about was my choice to change my major from pre-law to education. My father is an attorney, and he had always encouraged me to follow in his footsteps. I know he secretly hoped that I’d still change my mind and go to law school right up until I took my current job. There were a number of people in my life that didn’t see teaching as a career that lived up to my “potential,” which is quite a commentary on where our society places its values. This list included my former high school principal who, when I returned to do some observations that were required in my teacher education program, sat me down and asked,”You can do anything you want, why are you doing this?” Nothing like a little professional encouragement!
Why did I change my mind about becoming an attorney? Honestly, it was because I didn’t see how I could achieve what I wanted both personally and professionally by choosing that career path. I wanted to marry Adventure Guy, and I didn’t see postponing that for three years while I finished law school. I also knew that his career was not likely to keep us in one place for three years, so being married while going to law school wasn’t a great option either. I also knew what it took to be successful in the legal field, the kind of hours it took to make partner and the type of dedication to career over family that was required. I knew I wanted to be a fairly young mother and that I didn’t want to put off children indefinitely in the pursuit of career. But I also knew that I didn’t want to put aside a career completely and that I was not the type of person to pursue one half-heatedly.
What I didn’t realize at the time I made this decision is how much I would truly love what I do. Working in the field of education, both teaching and in school administration, has been personally fulfilling in a way that I don’t believe practicing law would have been. Of course, I’ll never know that for sure, but my career choice has allowed me to combine my family and career in a way that works for me. I was able to continue to study subjects that interested me, my teaching fields of history and English. My hours are flexible enough to be conducive to my children’s schedules. But perhaps the best unforeseen consequence is the satisfaction I get from knowing that my professional efforts can and do change the lives of thousands of students for the better.
I’d say the best answer to the question of “what if” lies more in the answer to the question, “If you could do it all over again, would you do something differently?” In my case, I’d have to answer with a resounding no because, as in The Post-Birthday World, everything has definitely turned out okay. In fact, it’s turned out better than okay, and I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that.