A loopy, tightly wound WASP family in Concord, Massachusetts, unravels with the introduction of alien elements in a generously portrayed and richly appointed debut.
Harvard graduate Caroline Dunlap has returned to her austere 19th-century family home in Paul Revere country to spend the summer planning what to do with her young and privileged life after the alarming breakup of her parents’ 22-year marriage. Her stiff-upper-lip father, Jack, a wealthy entrepreneur in a textbook business, deals with his wife Faith’s departure (and nervous breakdown) stoically, as is the custom of his emotionally frigid Yankee ancestors. Yet with a glimpse of the pregnant state of his former Colombian housekeeper, Rosita, whom he unceremoniously dismissed six months before despite the true affection she and his ten-year-old son Eliot share, Jack grows uncharacteristically troubled and self-questioning. In alternating third-person points of view, the reader is treated to a thorough, albeit forgiving, examination of the collapsing Dunlap state of affairs and of the rickety old-money network—an examination aided by Caroline’s nosy, well-meaning, pot-addled schoolmate Rock Coughlin and an oily turncoat filmmaker who wants to get the story of The Last WASPS—from Puritans to Preppies on film. Shattuck, wisely, unearths the inherent comedy is these stilted, in-bred characters who can indeed laugh at themselves and remain sympathetic. Caroline's mother Faith—a nervous, pretty, and sheltered divorcée—spends the novel at a girlhood friend’s home on Pea Island, afraid of facing her young, unsupervised son, and in the company of a terrifying Frenchman who encourages her to go skinny-dipping. “I’m used to not knowing what’s going on,” she concludes when Jack’s scandalous situation with the former housekeeper is gradually revealed. Caroline, infatuated by the filmmaker, subscribes to a similar philosophy of safety in incuriosity—until young Eliot’s need for love and attention drives everybody out of their collective, maddening self-absorption.
Shattuck has done wonders bringing to luminous life her patriotic diorama.