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Perfect Life: A Novel
by Jessica Shattuck

Published: 2009-08-03
Hardcover : 336 pages
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In Perfect Life, Jessica Shattuck once again displays her 'skewering gift for social commentary? (New York Times) in a uniquely modern chronicle of conception in the age of infinite possibility. Two years ago, Neil Banks walked into a bathroom in the Pacific Fertility Center to provide ...
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In Perfect Life, Jessica Shattuck once again displays her 'skewering gift for social commentary? (New York Times) in a uniquely modern chronicle of conception in the age of infinite possibility. 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 keenly observed novel about fertility, biology, love, and American excess.

Elegantly written, Perfect Life asks the perennially daunting question: What is the perfect life? In her smart and timely new novel, Jessica Shattuck tells a story that is humorous and moving, enlightening and life-affirming. .

Editorial Review

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later, after everything, after Neil had come and gone again
from their day- to- day lives, Laura had a memory of that other
time, a million years ago it seemed, when they had all been col-
lege students, living in that cushy, all- American holding pen for
almost- adults, reading books and being cooked for, drinking  ve
nights a week, and worrying over nothing more than term papers
and social gaffes.
The memory was of one of those gray November- in- New-
England days with the heat banging and ticking in the radiators
and wind rattling the windowpanes. Laura and her roommates had
spent the day entirely in their suite, taking refuge in the insuf cient
comfort of smoking cigarettes and listening to melancholy CDs.
Their rooms were at once slovenly and decorous—full of glossy
prints of Victorian paintings, Indian tapestries, and once- decent
furniture inherited from Laura’s great- grandmother, now strewn
with discarded shoes, full ashtrays, half- empty beer bottles, and
crusty plastic dining room dishes. No one ever cleaned. There was a
general atmosphere of simulation. They were all aware of those four
years as a kind of oblique practice for Real Life.
It was Laura herself who had brought up the subject. Children—
the idea had been so vague, so hazy as to seem almost make- believe.
Children—those loud, exotic, intimidating creatures who existed in
an altogether different universe. They never saw them. Later, when Laura was pregnant for the  rst time, she would suddenly be aware
of them all around her—mothers and babies, pregnant women,
toddlers—a ubiquitous presence that her eyes had up until then
simply dismissed.
But at the time of this memory they were still invisible, theoreti-
cal at best.
How many children do you want to have? she had asked, the ques-
tion arising from—what, some article she had been reading? Bore-
dom? Elise and Neil had looked at her blankly from where they sat
on the sofa, engrossed in a game of hearts.
Jenny, the former high school debater and prom queen, had a
certain and immediate answer: Two. A boy and a girl.
Not two- point- three? Neil had asked, raising his eyebrows. At that
time, he was Jenny’s boyfriend, if the casual, friends- turned- lovers
nature of their relationship could be labeled in those terms.
But Jenny had disappeared into her bedroom to get ready for
something, a meeting or a summer job interview, maybe—Jenny
was always getting ready for something, even then.
And you? Laura had turned back to Elise and Neil.
I don’t know. Elise had been disinterested—of the three girls, she
was both the brainiest and the most abstracted. I’ve never thought
about it.
I can see you having an only child, Laura had pronounced. It was
the kind of thing she liked to do back then—make things up and
see her own imaginings as premonitions. A sweet little boy who gets
really into something unusual like . . . fencing. Or ping- pong.
Hm. Elise had shrugged. Okay.
What about you? Laura had poked Neil with her toe.
Why not? Even in Laura’s twenty- year- old mind, the idea of hav-
ing children, however theoretical, was a given. Of course she would have children. Of course someday she would be a mother—it was
already a part of who she was.
Why would I?
Because—I don’t know—isn’t that the whole idea?
What—like some giant hall of mirrors? Have children to have chil-
dren to have children . . .
At that moment Jenny had come back out of her room, having
exchanged her T- shirt and sweatpants for a snug black sweater and
Well, I guess you two won’t be starting a family, Elise had pro-
nounced, with her usual foot- in- mouth frankness.
Jenny had not missed a beat. Guess not. She’d smiled glibly,
shrugging on her jacket.
There had been a lag in Neil’s response. This was what stuck out
in Laura’s mind now, so many years later. In that momentary pause,
she had glimpsed on his usually imperturbable face a look of . . .
what was it—hurt? Or something more complicated—a kind of
recognition that despite the unique brand of cool he so effortlessly,
even accidentally embodied, despite the air of promise, talent, and
exceptionality that surrounded him, for Jenny, he was still someone
to be summarily dismissed.
Well, he had said, I guess that settles it.
... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

Do you think that Neil is drawn back to Cambridge simply to see and to witness the care of his biological child, or are there other forces at work?

Is there a “normal” (or “perfect”) family in this novel? How would you define “normal” when it comes to marriage and parenting?

All of the families in Perfect Life are different—Chrissy and Elise are a lesbian couple with children, Laura is a stay-at-home mom while her husband Mac conducts business, and a nanny helps Jenny and Jeremy manage their work and home lives. But what do all of these families have in common?

How is the definition of family changing in the age of surrogates and donor siblings?

Elise resists a friendship with Claire Markowitz and can’t understand why Chrissy would want to group their children with a “pool” of siblings brought into being by the same anonymous sperm donor. Why is this, and do you agree with Chrissy or Elise on this issue?

How do Elise’s experiments with genetic mutation relate to her and Chrissie’s own efforts to have children? Might there be any connections to her affection toward Ula?

Discuss your opinions on the work/family dilemma. Is it possible to achieve a perfect balance between family and career? If you have children, what have you given up for your children or for your work?

Why does Neil feel so much anger and resentment toward Jenny? What does she represent for him?

Is Laura’s affair with Neil wrong, or is she justified in finding a way to live with her flawed marriage?

What is the root of Jenny’s ambition?

Why do you think Neil is so fascinated by video games? How do you think his game Perfect Life relates to the themes of the book?

How did these characters’ varied backgrounds influence who they became as adults? Discuss how the novel draws out and explains their inherited traits.

What do the lives of Laura, Chrissy, Elise, Neil, and their families say about success and the American Dream?

Jenny’s marketing plans for Setlan (and Neil’s negative response to the drug) raise a hotly debated contemporary issue—should we consider bad feelings natural and necessary, or should we take advantage of drugs that might heighten our moods?

How is Neil different from the other men in the novel, such as Jeremy and Mac? And how does the fact that he’s not a parent make him a kind of outcast?

Do you think that Nigel, James, and Colin will grow up with questions for their biological and nonbiological parents? What kinds of concerns, and what kinds of unique satisfaction, might they have regarding their families?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Twisted, but in a good way!"by Yvonne O. (see profile) 11/10/10

This book has a little something for everyone. It's not the typical, "here we are ten years or twenty years after college" sappy kind of treatment. This is a serious, gloom and doom kind of examination... (read more)

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