Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: Perfect Life [2009]

I keep making these forays into what I guess you might call "Literary Fiction" in an attempt to broaden my horizons, or make myself better at Reader's Advisory, or something. I read a few reviews of Perfect Life, by Jessica Shattuck, while I was doing collection development at work and impulsively placed a hold. As usually happens when I finish one of these books, I ended up somewhat disappointed. The novel is the story of four college friends (three women and one man, Neil) who attended Harvard undergrad together, and the action largely takes place in Boston (which is one of the problems, but I'll get to that momentarily). As the story begins, advertising executive Jenny is preparing for her son Colin's christening. Colin is biologically the child of Neil, who has agreed to give up his right to have knowledge of or contact with the child. So naturally, he is peering in the window of the fancy church that social-climbing Jenny has selected as an appropriate staging ground. The other friends, Laura (stay at-home mom and wife to a self-made immigrant) and Elise (lesbian and new non-bio parent), are each also prominent characters. I feel that the main difficulty with Perfect Life is that it takes on too many things. Each thirtysomething wrestles with mundane issues such parenthood and connecting with their spouse, in addition to heavier topics such as biology, inheritance, marketing, video game design, and a general crisis of faith. Jenny's husband [spoiler alert] is diagnosed with cancer, bringing her perfect world down around her ears just as she pioneers the launch of a new drug for postpartum depression. Laura, the most likeable character, struggles to find meaning in the daily routines of motherhood. Elise, a biologist, finds her partner's desire to meet other children conceived with their donor's sperm bewildering. Neil returns to Boston for reasons unknown even to himself, and it is around him (as the wild card) that the action largely turns.

In a weird way, this book is like a cousin of The Magicians, which I also read recently: a youngish group of friends struggling to find a place in the world and have angst and complicated relationships. But because Shattuck presents the narrative from the perspective of each of the four main characters, a lot of the interactions and character motivations end up feeling shallow because the reader never gets to spend enough time with one person. I lived in Boston for several years, and still don't consider myself an expert, but something about the way Shattuck dropped street, restaurant, and place names into the narrative really struck me as unnecessarily forceful, as if she was always trying to stress the location as an integral part of the story. Unfortunately, I don't feel that the location was an integral part of the story; the events could have played out anywhere. I get that Shattuck lives in Cambridge, and she wants to write what she knows--but it really was like reading one of those Gossip Girl or chick lit novels in which the names of designers and posh locales are always intruding on the plot.

I guess it probably sounds like I didn't really like this book. I'll be honest: it took me a long time to finish. I wasn't hurrying to pick it up. But it did make me think about a few things, like parenthood and friendship between adults, in a different way.

Grade: B-

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