PERFECT LIFE by Jessica Shattuck

Book Quote:

“Laura had a memory of that other time, a million years ago it seemed, when they had all been college students, living in that cushy, all-American holding pen for almost-adults, reading books and being cooked for, drinking five nights a week, and worrying over nothing more than term papers and social gaffes.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky (AUG 3, 2009)

Jessica Shattuck’s Perfect Life takes a satirical look at a group of former college chums in their mid-thirties who are, in some ways, still floundering emotionally. Neil Banks, in a moment of madness, agrees to donate his sperm to ex-girlfriend Jenny Callahan whose husband, Jeremy, is infertile. Laura Trillian adores her two young daughters, but her husband, Mac, is too preoccupied with closing deals to pay much attention to his family. Molecular biologist Elise Farber has a gay partner, Chrissy, and two boys whom Chrissy conceived via an anonymous donor. For a number of reasons, Elise feels left out of Chrissy’s birthing experience and her growing resentment threatens their relationship.

Shattuck draws us into the world of privilege in which these Bostonians live. The children have nannies, wear lovely clothes, and are destined to go to expensive private schools. Although the moms are all loving parents, each has issues that she is failing to address. Jenny is a bossy perfectionist who wants a neatly-ordered existence with no guesswork. In her opinion, “sloppiness and spontaneity breed unease.” Laura is alienated from her husband (“It felt often as if she were invisible.”) but lacks the courage to confront him with her dissatisfaction. Neil is in some ways, more lost than the rest of his former pals put together. He takes a job designing video games, but secretly longs to finish his research about an obscure American explorer. He is disgusted with himself for not fulfilling his dream. After Jenny gives birth to Neil’s biological child, to whom he signed away all rights, he becomes pathologically obsessed with little Colin.

Perfect Life has elements of soap opera along with satire and social commentary. There are plot lines concerning adultery, stalking, and serious illness that, fortunately, do not veer into melodrama. The author touches on the guilt and frustration of mothers who want to nurture their children as well as realize their potential as working women. Shattuck is an inventive and crisp descriptive writer (“For Laura, getting out the door with the girls every morning was like launching a rocket ship.”) whose well-crafted prose and sharply-honed dialogue flow smoothly. We come to understand and care about the main characters, warts and all, since the author takes the time to portray them as basically good-hearted, albeit troubled and somewhat self-absorbed, individuals. One throwaway character, a sexual predator named Galena, is tossed in the mix to wreak havoc; she is a one-dimensional opportunist with no redeeming features.

There are some amusing comic moments here and there, and the camaraderie between the friends is warmly and realistically depicted. Shattuck wisely wraps up the proceedings briskly, without any irritating twists and turns. The ironic title refers to the pipe dream of men and women who expect everything to fall into place automatically: devoted spouse, good health, beautiful children, plenty of money, loyal friends, and a fulfilling job. In the real world, alas, perfection is unattainable.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: W.W. Norton & Co. (August 3, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jessica Shattuck
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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August 3, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, NE & New York, Satire

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