“Jessica Shattuck’s engrossing, deceptively ambitious novel explores a wide range of subjects . . . with a shrewd and sympathetic eye.”—Tom Perrotta
Jessica Shattuck on Perfect Life
A few years ago I found out that an acquaintance of mine had donated sperm to an ex-girlfriend (now a lesbian) and become the biological father of her child. His relationship to the baby was very loosely and unofficially delineated—he was comfortable with having no legal connection to his son. I found the fuzziness of the relationship fascinating: What if he decided that he wanted to have a significant role in the child’s life? What if his amicable relationship with his ex went sour? What if, after having donated the biological materials necessary to conceive, he wanted in on the result?
The questions this arrangement posed were interesting to me as a writer because they touch on the rawest and most fundamental issues of being alive. How significant is our biology and its replication? What does it mean—and what does it do to us—to bring new life into the world?
I had a two-year-old and a six-month-old at the time I started writing Perfect Life, so these questions were (and still are) near and dear to me. My own family follows the traditional pattern of two parents raising their biological children, but as a parent in the 2000s I have many friends and peers who have brought children into the world in new ways: through sperm donation, egg donation, surrogacy, fertility treatments . . . We have so much more control over the process of procreation than we ever had before, but at base, the end result is the same: We bring babies into the world and raise them in the best way we can. We love them and care for them, and they turn our lives around in expected and unexpected ways.
As I started writing, I kept thinking about an article that Jennifer Egan had written for the New York Times Magazine about single women deciding to become mothers through sperm donation. One of the women it profiled had become part of a donor-sibling community of women whose children shared the same sperm-donor father. They had formed a listserve and were planning a vacation together.
This idea became the basis of one of the plot threads in Perfect Life; it was such a vivid illustration of one new kind of family structure that can come out of a new way of conceiving, full of potential for its own unique comedies and tragedies and everyday hurdles.
And so, out of the raw material of these stories that touched my imagination and my own experiences as a parent, wife, and friend, my characters began to emerge, not little by little, but fully formed—like old friends, or pieces of myself that had been waiting in the back channels of my mind. And I began to tell their stories, the end result of which is Perfect Life.
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?
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