"Reading Jessica Shattuck's pitch perfect first novel is like spying on the children and grandchildren of John Cheever's Wapshots."—Los Angeles Times
The Author on Her Work
A few summers ago, I was visiting friends at their summer house—a rambling, pedigreed old house on the Massachusetts shore. It was a bright, beautiful, hot July day and it was absolutely quiet—people were napping, or reading on the big old front porch, or lying out on the dock below, listening to the slap of waves. I decided to take a walk.
From this quiet corner of the world I ventured down a dirt road, which turned to pavement, and which brought me to the next town over—home to a whole different New England beach scene. Here the houses were chock-a-block, lining the street across from the water, their windows decorated with flags and cardboard cutouts of sea shells, their decks full of coolers of beer and collapsible beach chairs. There were people playing radios and games of football, lots of movement, activity, and noise. It was less than a mile away from the house I had come from but it felt like an altogether different, and in many ways more vibrant, world.
There was a melancholy that came with the peace and quiet of the secluded place I as visiting and, in contrast, a frenetic, contagious energy in this less exclusive, more modern place I had walked to. And the contrast was interesting to me. The Waspy old New England house seemed like part of an obsolete story, a vestige of a one-time American dream. This crowded strip of row houses seemed closer to the heart of the new America—a place where people long to be Hollywood celebrities, not members of old families, where the immigrant success story trumps lineage any day.
It made me think of people caught between these two worlds—by choice, by inertia, or by circumstance—people living in an America much larger than the one they were raised to inhabit. And with that came Faith Dunlap, a woman stunted by her life—long adherence to other people’s sense of right and wrong, and her ex-husband Jack, an arrogant man, resistant to change and isolated by his own stubbornness. And then their children, Caroline and Eliot, both struggling to break out of the claustrophobic and increasingly irrelevant social order their family lives by.
Of course, at the time what happened was more immediate. I imagined Caroline Dunlap, a young woman in some ways like myself at her age, and in other ways not at all, coming home to a house much like the one I had left on that hot summer day. And then her mother, Faith, packing her suitcase—a fragile, but resilient woman completely unlike my mother, but yet so familiar to me it was as if I’d known her my whole life. And then Eliot, Rock, and finally Jack Dunlap, who I was a little bit afraid of, but who I knew I would have to give a voice. And the book took off from there. I wrote the first hundred pages at a racing clip, and then had to stop and unravel where it was all going: what exactly Eliot was up to, what Jack was going to do, how Caroline and Faith would be affected by the outsiders they had taken up with. I came to love my characters, for all their flaws, and I miss them now that I’m done writing the book.
I think of The Hazards of Good Breeding as being about individuals and families and love and frustration more than I think of it as being specifically about WASPS. The Dunlaps, like so many people out there, have hemmed themselves in with their own traditions, sense of propriety, and social insularity—and they are each struggling, in their own ways, to realize essential connections between their lives and the lives of others outside the narrow slice of the world they inhabit. Whether they succeed or not is up to each reader to decide for him or herself.
- How does Caroline Dunlap change over the course of the novel? How might her choices for post-college life have taken a new direction?
- Jack Dunlap is an inscrutable man to all who know him. How does Shattuck manage to elicit our sympathy toward him?
- The Hazards of Good Breeding is a comedy of manners with dark undercurrents. How do these come to the surface over the course of the novel? What do they reveal about the Dunlaps’ world?
- Why is Faith Dunlap attracted to Jean Pierre?
- The novel is very much about people’s public front versus their interior worlds. How does the theme of role-playing manifest itself throughout the novel?
- The Hazards of Good Breeding is told from five different perspectives. H ow does this shifting point of view (first we see through Caroline’s eyes, then Eliot’s, then Rock’s, etc.) affect our reading of the book and our understanding of the events that unfold?
- What does Paul Revere’s ride embody for Eliot Dunlap?
- Is Jack in love with Rosita?
- Describe the role of humor in Shattuck’s society portrait. Given that this is in some ways a story about a fragmented family at a moment of crisis, why didn’t she choose a more sober tone?
- What does Caroline realize from her experiences with Stefan?
- Caroline is initially dismissive of Rock Coughlin. What accounts for her change of heart by the novel’s end?
- How does Shattuck’s story relate to a larger portrait of contemporary America?
- How does The Hazards of Good Breeding fit into the American literary tradition of authors like John Cheever and John Updike? What other writers’ work does Shattuck’s novel call to mind?
- What are the “hazards of good breeding” in this book?
About Jessica Shattuck
Jessica Shattuck is the author of The Hazards of Good Breeding (a New York Times Notable Book and a Winship/PEN Award finalist) and Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Believer, Wired, Mother Jones, and Glamour, among other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Books by Jessica Shattuck
"Reading Jessica Shattuck's pitch perfect first novel is like spying on the children and grandchildren of John Cheever's Wapshots."—Los Angeles TimesMore
“Jessica Shattuck’s engrossing, deceptively ambitious novel explores a wide range of subjects . . . with a shrewd and sympathetic eye.”—Tom PerrottaMore