The Hazards of Good Breeding
Jessica Shattuck
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The Hazards of Good Breeding

Jessica Shattuck
W.W. Norton
304 pages
April 2004
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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During this fast-forward week in Boston, the Dunlap family is caught up in its own momentum, as people and places converge on a collision course with an evolving world where “all the comforts and grace of good fortune…lie in decaying abundance.” The eldest Dunlap boys are grown with lives of their own. The two remaining children, caught in the changing family dynamic, are post-college Caroline and pre-boarding school Eliot, but their confusion about the activities at home leads each to precipitous actions, particularly Eliot.

Curled Up With a Good BookYoung Eliot is a sensitive, compassionate young man who misses his mother, who moved to New York following a difficult divorce, and his babysitter, who was abruptly fired by Jack Dunlap. Eliot’s mother, Faith, crumbled under the weight of her failed 22-year marriage, leaving Eliot to be raised by his distant, awkward father in their historical home, “a house that depends on the unspoken.” During this week of unpredictability, Jack experiences that moment of revelation, observing the ways in which the texture of the world is changing, even there on the streets of Boston. For her part, Rosita, the babysitter, has been conspicuously absent for the last six months.

Rosita is the real anomaly in the family, her absence a catalyst for Eliot’s fantasies and Jack’s mid-life angst. Caroline circles the men in her family, alternately serving in her mother’s place and ruminating on her own future. Then a handsome filmmaker falls into her life to further complicate matters. Faith, the ex-Mrs. Dunlap, is at a crossroads of her own, reawakening after her emotional confusion, tentatively reaching out to her children, prompted by their needs and her motherly intuition.

The Hazards of Good Breeding is a pithy social commentary on a way of life that is ultimately altered by a changing world; the characters and plot are set into a story that recognizes the inherent humor of the human condition. The author could just as easily have framed a family drama, but instead, with raised eyebrow, suggests the personal foibles of an assortment of characters reflective of an archetypal American family of historical lineage. What better venue for this acting out of personal agendas than the stalwart East Coast, bastion of culture and American history?

In spite of the Dunlaps' place in the settling of early America, this family is not so different, one foot stuck in the yesterday, yet drawn into the vortex of a rapidly changing future. It is the rigid social structure of their ancestors that defines their approach to the future, in a distinctly American fashion. Through all the turmoil, the family moves towards rapprochement, although in unexpected ways, as their world subtly shifts, offering unexpected alliances and possibilities. The clinging worries and concerns of the family unit are reconfigured in a manner that provides for individual needs. It is these characters’ very real confusion that renders them so accessible, even familiar. In her quirky, objective style, Shattuck looks with kindness upon the Dunlaps.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2004

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