Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck

Take four college friends (three former roommates and one ex-boyfriend) living what look to be perfect lives about ten years after college, stir in a broken promise, add a dollop of discontent and you have the premise for this novel. Opening with a prologue that takes place after the events in the bulk of the novel, Laura muses on a scene from the main characters' college years that carries the seeds of the big plot driving occurrence within it as each of them reflect on children and their future families.

Years later in Boston, the three former roommates have the lives they might have predicted that night or close to it. But those lives are only perfect on the surface. Laura is a wife and mother whose marriage is stagnant and who feels unappreciated by her mostly absent husband. Elise, a gifted research biologist, is feeling alienated from her partner over the issue of their children, who are biologically Chrissy's but not hers. Jenny is a new mom, having just had the baby she conceived using donor sperm from her old college boyfriend due to her husband's infertility. She is also a pharmaceutical exec contemplating a way to open up new markets for an existing antidepressant. Neil, Jenny's ex, has just moved back to Boston to work on a video game (selling out in his view) and is suddenly obsessed with the baby with whom he promised Jenny zero contact.

Neil shows up outside the church where Jenny's son is being baptised and accidentally runs into Laura. This unplanned meeting brings Neil back into the lives of Laura and Elise in ways that cause them each to examine the foundations of their lives and relationships. And of course, it will also lead Neil back into Laura's life, no matter how tightly she thinks she's secured her life against him.

Shattuck examines our notions of family, and biology in this complicated look at what determines and defines the word parent. There is also the question of what sort of life each of us is entitled to have and whether we are justified in doing whatever is needed to attain that life, regardless of the innocent bystanders who might be hurt.

It is easy to see why the characters are so dissatisfied with their lives given the sense of ennui that pervades the book. The writing keeps the reader at a distance, making it difficult to connect emotionally to any of the characters. Although it is Jenny's decision to have her son using Neil's sperm (he is a known entity and brilliant to boot, if aimless, in her view) and their agreement that he will stay forever out of the child's life that drives the actions of everyone in the book, the brittle Jenny is the least well fleshed out of the characters remaining a bit of an enigma throughout the story.

In general I enjoyed the premise but found the detached feel of the novel to hold me back from complete enjoyment and immersion in the lives of these four. With interesting and thought-provoking themes running through it, this was a decent read so I'd be willing to read more of Shattuck's work in the future.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for my copy of this book.

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