Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: What makes life perfect?


Jessica Shattuck’s new novel, Perfect Life, covers a lot of ground and mixes a lot of familiar themes. Take one part The Big Chill, one part Jodi Picoult, and blend it with women’s fiction, and you’ll start to see what I mean.

Meet four college friends: Jenny, Laura, Elise, and Neil. Gone are the pot-smoking days of simplicity, and welcome to the real world. Elise is frustrated with her partner’s quest to find other children of their child’s sperm donor; Laura has a husband that is never home and questions if she ever really knew the father of her two children.
But the novel’s backbone lies with Neil and Jenny. Two years prior, Neil provided his sperm so Jenny and her husband Jeremy could conceive a child. With this donation, though, he signed away all rights and recognition as the biological father, and he is just now starting to question whether this was a good decision. Neil’s unexpected return to the East Coast sends a shockwave through the group and brings them together in this book about family, friendship, morality, and (as the back of the book states) fertility.
One part Big Chill: I believe the strongest point of this novel is Shattuck’s ability to realistically depict her characters’ relationships and reactions. The plot fundamentally revolves around Neil’s return and how it affects each of the other characters, both within their circle of friendship and outside of it with their own families, and for this reason, it reminds me of The Big Chill. The reader gets a clear and descriptive picture of each character’s personality and problems, so we feel as though we really know them and their relationships.

One part Jodi Picoult: Picoult always writes on the grey area of legality, taking an issue like Neil’s controversial sperm donation and chronicling its impact on her characters. I found Shattuck’s storyline to be very creative, but I don’t believe it was used to its full potential. For once, I wish it had been more Picoult-esque, because the Shattuck’s characters seemed to be very submissive, and somewhat passive, about the whole Neil issue. I understand there is a fine balance between keeping it a character novel and turning it into a legal drama, but it seemed weak as Neil was the only one who seemed to care one way or another about the situation. I was happy to leave the characters at the end because their problems exhausted me.
The back cover synopsis describes this as a “deeply funny and keenly observed novel,” but it certainly is in no way, shape, or form ‘funny.’ This is a serious novel, but not a negative one. You may not chuckle, but you will appreciate Shattuck’s character insight as you ponder how you would react in a similar situation.
W. W. Norton & Co.
320 Pages, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-393-06950-1
Many thanks to W. W. Norton and LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for providing me a free advance copy of this book.


Dina said…

I enjoyed reading your review and plan to read the book now. Thanks for visiting my blog and linking! Good luck with the Julie&Julia giveaway.

Salvatore said…

Interesting, about the Picoult aspect. Legality and family seem to be her themes, which I never realised (though I've never read her…). But I'm intrigued by the question of legal paternity here.