Shattuck returns to the moneyed Massachusetts territory explored in The Hazards of Good Breeding (2003).
They became friends at Harvard, and now, 15 years later, three of them still reside near it. Jenny, a hotshot marketing executive at Genron Pharmaceuticals, is building a McMansion in Wellesley. Laura does the stay-at-home mom thing with her two daughters—she hardly ever sees mogul husband Mac—in Cambridge. That’s also where Elise, a scientist at a lab owned by Genron, lives with her partner Chrissy and their twin sons. Only Neil has wandered away to lead a mysterious, cynical existence in Los Angeles, and when he wanders back to Boston, he is not particularly welcome. Two years ago Jenny approached Neil to be a sperm donor. Her husband Jeremy was infertile, she explained; smart, creative, handsome and healthy Neil seemed like good donor material, and his disinterest in children suited the arrangement Jenny wanted. No one but Laura, Elise and Jeremy would know that Neil was the biological father; he would have no role in the child’s life. But then Neil shows up at the baby’s christening with some vague notion of being acknowledged, and his presence throws everyone’s comfortable habits into question. Shattuck’s best creation is Neil. The gifted 22-year-old with all the right questions, the critical eye, the disdain for conformity, is uncomfortably just the same at 35, when all that brilliance smacks of naive narcissism. Working in Boston for a year developing a video game, he begins his passive-aggressive assault by sleeping with Laura and stalking Jenny’s year-old baby Colin. Paternity and belonging are the novel’s leitmotifs: As Jenny, Jeremy and Neil grapple with the question of what constitutes fatherhood, Elise’s relationship falters over Chrissy’s insistence that their sons meet all the other children produced by inseminations from their sperm donor, whom she calls the boys’ “brothers and sisters.”
Despite some dips into melodrama, a smart consideration of what it means to acquire a family.