Using alternate chapters, this Sliding Doors-style story follows parallel Irinas following a fateful night with friend. One kisses the friend, a charming, handsome and famous snooker player named Ramsey, the other stays faithful to long-term partner and terminal nice-but-boring Lawrence. The two men are polar opposites - Lawrence is stable, hard working, frugal, staid, whereas Ramsey is exciting, passionate, rich but profligate. And Irina's life with these very different men is charted in each chapter.
This is a pretty standard chick-lit plot - which man should Irina choose. But it's raised above this level by Shriver's writing. As she has already shown in Double Fault and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver is a keen observer of the battle between the sexes. She writes with wit, humour and occasional cruelty. As an observation of human behaviour this is excellent.
However, there are faults. None of the characters are particularly likeable, not even Irina. There's nothing to dislike about her but nothing to really identify with either. In the Lawrence-Irina strand, Lawrence is often nasty and rather cruel to Irina, treating her like a child and undermining her. The event that shocks Irina so much near the end can actually be seen coming from whole chapters before, and I was left wondering why she stayed with the man for so long.
Ramsey, too, can be cruel. He's jealous and insecure and will happily start a fight just for the making up afterwards. Again, I can't fully understand why Irina would stay with the man for so long. The implication seems to be that Irina needs to be needed; she can deal with anything that these men throw at her so long as they need her still.
Repeated episodes or those told from a slightly different point of view are used throughout the chapters, and these often feel forced. I assume the point of them is to reinforce the idea that only one life is being played out here, but it isn't always successful.
But my main problem with this book is the ending, and this next part will contain spoilers.
Ramsey-Irina is inspired to write and illustrate a children's book. She uses a similar ploy to Shriver's to tell the story of a boy who either becomes a famous snooker player or an astronaut. In each, while his life isn't perfect, he is OK. This is the point of the book - that life offers many choices and whatever happens it can be OK. It's a good moral. And yet neither of the Irinas is OK. Lawrence-Irina finds out he has been sleeping with another woman for five years, while Ramsey in the second strand dies of cancer. Maybe it illustrates the fact that there really are no right and wrong choices, just right and wrong for that very moment. But in life most things do turn out OK and a better way to illustrate these points might have been for both Irinas to be, well, OK.