Monday Book Talk: “Perfect Life,” by Jessica Shattuck

I received an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

Perfect Life: A Novel by Jessica Shattuck

Perfect Life: A Novel
Jessica Shattuck
W.W. Norton & Co., 2009 (hardcover) (ISBN 0393069508 / 9780393069501)
Fiction, 336 pages

First sentence: Later, after everything, after Neil had come and gone from their everyday lives, 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 description: Two years ago, Neil Banks walked into a bathroom in the Pacific Fertility Center to provide his former college girlfriend, Jenny Callahan, with the biological material needed to conceive a child. Becoming a father was not part of the deal: adrift in his postmodern Los Angeles lifestyle, he signed away all paternity rights. But on the day of the baby’s christening, Neil turns up at the church. His unexpected – and unauthorized – return to Jenny’s privileged East Coast world sends a shockwave through the families of Jenny and her two college roommates – and sets off this deeply funny and keenly observed novel about fertility, love, and American excess.

Comments: No one’s life is perfect, no matter how hard they try to make it so, although some do succeed in making their lives look perfect from the outside. Former college roommates and long-time friends Jenny, Laura, and Elise all seem to be doing quite well. Laura has a successful husband and is a stay-at-home mom to their two young daughters; Jenny has a thriving career, a new baby boy, and a pending move to the suburbs; and Elise is engaged with her scientific research and her own family.

Jenny’s baby was conceived with donor sperm, due to her husband’s infertility, from a chosen donor – their old college friend Neil, an ex-boyfriend of hers whose life has gone adrift since he abandoned his doctoral dissertation. Elise’s twin boys had similar origins, but from a different source, and are the biological children of her partner Chrissy. Chrissy is seeking out her children’s biological half-siblings from the donor, and Elise, a biologist, is conflicted over her efforts. Meanwhile, Neil has chosen to violate the agreement that he made with Jenny – that he’d have no contact with any child produced from his donation – and has secretly returned to Boston.

One of the central themes in Perfect Life is played out through those storylines – what defines a parent? How much of a role does biology play, and without a biological connection, can parent and child be truly bonded? What about when biology is the only connection? Does a person have to have a family to have a happy, “perfect” life…and is that happiness deserved? What might people be willing to do to get the happiness they deserve?

There are some good questions here, and Jessica Shattuck’s exploration of them kept me reading, but ultimately I felt that it fell short. I thought the material was good, but it seemed underdeveloped, and that was a bit disappointing. There were quite a few good scenes, but others really didn’t seem to lead anywhere. The characters didn’t feel fully fleshed out.  I think Laura came the closest, and also found her the most likable; but considering how much of the story revolves around Jenny, I didn’t think I really knew her well enough. “Sketchy” was the word that came to mind; the novel was like a series of related sketches, and I wish it had been more filled in, filled out, and connected. Perfect Life isn’t quite a perfect novel, though – I think it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Having said that, I do think there’s a lot of good discussion material here for a book group, and I’d read other novels by Jessica Shattuck.


If you have read and reviewed this book, please leave your link in comments or e-mail me at 3.rsblog AT GMail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to include it!

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  1. We really do tend to fall on the same side with most books, don't we!?

    When I looked at PERFECT LIFE as satire (and very thought-provoking satire), I was more satisfied than when I considered it as a straight novel (does that make sense?)

    Thinking about the book more, as I prepped my review, I realized there was a lot even with Neil being a games designer (the way people get 'lost' in video games and online; the way we can start over, have second chances, etc.)

    Definitely a good book for discussion, but a bit of a downer to read and keep to myself!