Review: 'Perfect Life' shows few have one

August 3, 2009 11:23:07 AM PDT
Jenny Callahan thought she had the perfect solution to her husband's infertility: They could have a baby using sperm donated by her intelligent but wayward college boyfriend.

Everyone could see it was a bad idea except Jenny and her insecure, self-involved ex, Neil Banks. Jenny wanted a baby. Neil wanted to prove to Jenny that he was important.

He had no interest in having a child - until the birth announcement arrives. On the day of the baby's baptism, he shows up outside the church.

The new novel by Jessica Shattuck, author of "The Hazards of Good Breeding," is more interesting than enjoyable. Most of Shattuck's female characters, including the overpowering Jenny, are sympathetic, so the plot gives the same sinking feeling as watching a good friend date a man who is totally unsuitable.

Within days of his reappearance, Neil has inserted himself back into the lives of Jenny's two college roommates. Confronted with his disdain for wealth and the luxuries it buys, Laura Trillian feels guilty about her husband's success in business and shamed by her life as a stay-at-home mom. Geneticist Elise Farber begins to feel she has sold out by working for the pharmaceutical company where Jenny is an executive.

But as Neil tells himself, everything he touches goes bad, and Jenny's former roommates feel isolated rather than liberated by their sudden questioning of their perfect - or at least perfectly comfortable - lives.

Meanwhile, Jenny is re-evaluating her climb up the corporate ladder as her husband struggles with cancer. By the time she finds the increasingly obsessed Neil in her son's nursery in the middle of the night, she's ready to rethink the deal that sparked his meltdown.

"Perfect Life" is perfectly timed. The novel is set just before the market collapse. Many of its characters' forebodings about the result of material excess reflect the chagrin many Americans struggling in the recession feel about the past decade. Jenny builds the perfect house, and then slowly and sadly comes to terms with the fact that she and her son may soon be living there alone.

Laura impulsively married a man flush with cash but feels stifled and neglected as a work widow. Elise realizes she must sacrifice her research agenda for the company's if she wants to keep collecting a big paycheck.

But while it must have been tempting for Shattuck to paint Neil as the visionary who sees through material trappings to the emptiness underneath, she resists that and takes a more interesting path. Neil may disdain Jenny's and the others' materialism, but he, too, has sold out, leaving his job as a computer game reviewer to become a corporate hack. He hates himself for helping develop a crassly commercial sequel to a video game blockbuster yet finds himself falling in love with his creation. And always, there is the nagging question: What is his legacy? It is sitting in Jenny's nursery?

"Perfect Life" is a social commentary on rampant capitalism, unbridled science, love and fidelity. It may raise more questions than it answers, but as the main characters learn, nothing need be perfect to be good.

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