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Perfect Life: A Novel Hardcover – August 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Shattuck's seamless second (after The Hazards of Good Breeding) explores how one woman's decision to shut the biological father of her child out of her life affects a group of old college pals. Harvard grad Neil Banks isn't exactly thrilled at having sold out and taken a job that moved him from L.A. to Boston to design the video games he used to review. After his arrival, he happens across Laura, a mutual friend of his and his college sweetheart, Jenny, who got pregnant using Neil's sperm after her blank-shooting husband couldn't deliver. As Laura, now unhappily married and the mother of two, and Neil embark on an affair, Neil's desire to connect with the son he's never met (and signed away all rights to) grows ever more intense. His chance comes in the form of a sexually voracious rep from Jenny's pharma company who is working on an antidepressant product-placement deal for a game Neil's designing. Shattuck does a great job with her characters, and the bizarre situations they find themselves in—Neil particularly—come across as oddly believable. Light humor and breezy prose seal the deal. (Aug.)
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“Each of the four fully delineated characters is unique, and their situations clearly reflect their personalities as Shattuck describes their feelings with great accuracy, reveling in the fact that her characters are well educated and reflective people who demonstrate admirable self-awareness. In all, this is an excellent, resonant novel.”
“Stylish storytelling and sharp social commentary―on issues ranging from adultery to genetic engineering―make Perfect Life both topical and eminently readable.”
“Shattuck does a great job with her characters, and the bizarre situations they find themselves in―Neil particularly―come across as oddly believable. Light humor and breezy prose seal the deal.”
- Publishers Weekly
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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 the research he had begun about an obscure American explorer. He is disgusted with himself for giving up his academic goals. After Jenny gives birth to Neil's biological child, to whom he signed away all rights, he becomes pathologically obsessed with the infant.
"Perfect Life" has some 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 both nurture their children and 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 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.
But it is in the unnerving character of Jenny Callahan that Shattuck strikes deepest at our futile and almost fearsome quest for the perfect life. Callahan is a powerful ad executive in pharmaceuticals, married to a successful entrepreneur who has obliged her every wish, including the seemingly outlandish plan to bear a child with the sperm of her college ex (Niel). After having her own child, Jenny is tasked with marketing medication for postpartum depression to women able to afford such ameliorative. The packaging - disguised as birth control pills - and advertising - "You deserve to enjoy your child" - are so brilliantly malicious that one cannot help but question a society that has led us to believe that life's less savory elements (professional frustration, strained relationships, temporary chemical imbalances) are experiences of which we "deserve" to be relieved. To this day I cannot hear that word without thinking of Jenny.