Title: Perfect Life
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Release Date: August 2009
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Category: Family Life
Review source: publisher
Here was this woman whom he had once loved, and whom he had, in a way, come to despise. A woman who had embraced the lowest common denominator of the American dream—the pursuit of wealth, at the cost of any more complex ambitions. When Neil had dated her, she had wanted to be a lawyer at one of those nonprofits that advocated for women. She had been passionate about creating opportunities and broadening the horizons of children growing up in the kind of forgotten, working-class nowheresville she and Neil had. Had that all been a pose—a stepping-stone to achieving financial success? And outcropping of the unapologetic pragmatism he both hated and envied?
Jenny, Laura, and Elise are former college roommates who now lead very different thirty-something lives. Laura has two daughters and avoids her husband most of the time. Elise is a transgenic scientist and lesbian. Jenny works in marketing at a pharmaceutical company and wants to start a family with her impotent husband. She asked her ex-boyfriend, Neil Bank, to donate sperm and give up any parental rights to her child. Though he once was a promising PhD candidate, Jenny now considers him a slacker. Neil shows up at the baby’s christening and wants the child because he despises Jenny’s materialistic lifestyle. Perfect Life examines parenthood. What does it mean to be a biological parent but not be a part of that child’s life? What does it mean to be involved in every aspect of a child’s life but not be its biological parent? Shattuck addresses these complex issues with grace and honesty.
Jessica and I met at a cute little coffee shop in Brookline Village to talk.
Amy Steele [AS]: How did you get the idea for the book?
Jessica Shattuck [JS]: I had two kids and I think something about having two kids and being in a totally different place in my life—the creation of life was very front and center for me. And there are so many different ways we create life. Living in Cambridge, Mass. (I just moved to Brookline, Mass.), there are so many different kinds of families. I’ve had friends who’ve used sperm donors. I have friends who use egg donors. You’re just in the midst of something that used to be a very standard man-woman-child sort of set-up. I also came across this article in the New York Times Magazine about using sperm donors and one of the women profiles was going on a vacation with other women and their children all from the same sperm donor. But the sperm donor wasn’t a part of this. He was anonymous. There were like 10 of them going on this Caribbean vacation and I just thought that was so interesting. And there’s a lesbian couple in the book and the tension between them is that the biological parent is really interested in meeting the child.
Once I starting writing it, I wrote very fast for me. My first book took almost 2 ½ years to write and this just was about a year. Once I was in it it just took on a life of its own. There are some serious issues but it was much lighter to write.
AS: Why did you include the Donor Sibling Registry in the book?
JS: I was introduced to the idea in that (NY Time Mag) article and to put myself in the shoes of wanting to know your child’s biological parent but also not know that, I could completely imagine both sides. It gets to the core of a lot of what people are grappling with to define the meaning of family and how to preserve some of the old archetypes of family and at the same time accommodate new direction. It seems very central to that so that’s how that ended up in there.
AS: What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?
JS: It’s a boring answer but finding the time. And once I was in the time and would have a chunk of a lot of time, I found that I really loved the process. I didn’t have some of the moment with other things I written where you’re sort of batting your head against the wall and trying to sort out a complicated plot problem. I feel like the central theme of this sperm donor, in Perfect Life, who’s an ex-boyfriend who has agreed to complete anonymity deciding that he wants back in, was one that really helped keep the book centered for me.
AS: One of the characters in the book is a transgenic biologist. Why did you pick this profession and can you explain it some more?
JS: You take the genes of one species and insert them into the genes of another. Elise is working at a pharmaceutical company lab. I think that’s a more controversial field. Certainly on book tour in the Q&A after readings, some of the more interesting conversations came from that subject and how I’d gotten into it. Many people aren’t aware that it’s such a brilliant field with so many applications. I had started doing research on that for another book and it seemed more complimentary to the other facets of the book. You become so much more powerful in the realm of creating life.
AS: So you have three diff friends with v. diff lifestyles how did you decide to go in that direction?
JS: It was very organic. I did think a little with the woman who works in marketing and pharmaceuticals. Her values needed to be different from that of her ex-boyfriend the sperm donor. She lives in this corporate, valueless work culture. Everything comes up against his jaundiced eye. I felt they had to be these polar opposites.
AS: You named the novel Perfect Life. Do you have a definition of the perfect life?
JS: I definitely don’t have a description of a perfect life. That would be nice. These characters are all in their own ways pursuing and trying to get their own perfect lives. I like the biologically perfect life too because the transgenic work is after that too.
AS: Laura has two daughters and her husband avoids her. Elise is a lesbian. Jenny has an impotent husband. Why did you portray the men in such weak (or non-existent) roles?
JS: I tried to make Jenny’s husband hopefully a sympathetic character. And Laura’s husband maybe less.
AS: It’s probably more about the women.
JS: Although one of the main characters and one I enjoyed writing the most was Neil. It’s not a book about the women but in their lives the men tend to be secondary.
AS: What is most important to you in writing a novel?
JS: I think it’s more important to me to write something that people want to read. I want them to be moved by it and get sucked in by it. Basically I want it to be what I want from a book. I like books that are page-turners that make me want to keep reading. I like books that raise interesting questions but aren’t’ all about the author’s cleverness.
AS: Why do you write?
JS: I just always wanted to write. I used to write poems.
AS: Did you go to school to learn to write?
JS: I did. I went to the Columbia MFA program after I had been out working for a few years. Something in me has always wanted to write. I don’t know if I can explain why.
Perfect Life is available at Indie Booksellers