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The Hazards of Good Breeding

The Hazards of Good Breeding is a first novel by Jessica Shattuck (Norton, 2003) that reads, for the most part, like the work of a more practiced novelist. Among other attractions, it has the power of observation and the freedom from solipsism that distinguish the English novel from the American, particularly where young women writers are concerned, and so it may signal a welcome ripening of American talent. Although there is indeed a character who might perhaps reflect the author's personal experience, she is neither the principal character in this family story nor the most developed. To be sure, the book begins with her waking up on a summer morning. But if Caroline Dunlap is alone in her bed, she is not alone in her room, and we're almost immediately introduced to another leading character, a former schoolmate who has always had a crush on her. What really distinguishes Hazards from the run of novels written by writers of Ms Shattuck's age is the portrait of Caroline's father, Jack. A hard and ruthless capitalist, but not, in the end, a heartless man, Jack is a throwback to his ancestors in Hawthorne and Holmes, a latter-day puritan. He may not be particularly religious, but his assurance and self-righteousness flow from a tremendous faith in something, and Ms Shattuck immediately brings him alive. She also manages to kindle enough sympathy for him to give her story's quite lovely resolution a well-earned patina.

I will not be surprised if and when Ms Shattuck presents us with a novel that's more clearly focused on a man of Jack Dunlap's magnitude. For her debut, she has made a virtue of inexperience, by lining up a number of interesting  characters and giving them stories that interact mostly in the tangential way of family life. The action takes place over ten days or so of an early June, mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, home of the Dunlaps since the middle of the eighteenth century. Caroline has just graduated from Harvard; her ten year-old brother, Eliot, is about to finish fourth grade as the star of a school play adapted from The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, a poem that has inspired him to an extraordinary degree. Missing from home are the twins, the oldest Dunlap children, and Faith, their mother. The twins never do show up, but Faith, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and an ugly divorce, has flown up from her new home in New York to see Eliot's play, after which she spends some time at an old school friend's summer place. The young man in Caroline's bedroom, Rock Coughlin, junior, a genuine slacker whose pot-addled mind grapples with the prospect of sojourning at a Tibetan monastery, figures as prominently as any Dunlap, while somewhat more in the background lurks Stephan, the darkly handsome documentary filmmaker who, as Caroline somewhat predictably discovers, wants to exploit her family's story of WASP weirdness. Haunting the entire book, but not really participating until very near the end, is Rosita Rodriguez, a very pregnant Columbian immigrant who, until six months ago, was Eliot's live-in babysitter. Six months ago, Jack Dunlap fired her.

Just why he fired her is never stated, and this silence is a characteristic of the book that I am inclined to regard as a flaw. Ms Shattuck always writes vividly about the present; indeed, she writes in the present tense, a device that tends to submerge the omniscient narrator beneath the consciousness of individual points of view. But she is reluctant to tell the backstories. I should have liked to know more about Jack's orphaned childhood, and about the self-absorbed aunt who raised him; about the early days of Jack's and Faith's marriage, when they lived on Park Avenue - the Dunlap house in Concord at that time having been sold to a Swiss couple from whom Jack later bought it back, to Faith's chagrin. We're made to guess at what went wrong between Jack and Faith, and what precipitated her dramatic breakdown; it could not possibly have hurt the novel for Ms Shattuck to tell us more about this. And where exactly does Stephan come from? Far from creating any air of mystery, the gaps have the effect of thinning her characters' reality, and while they remain real enough for all that, they would have stood more firmly on her fictional ground if we knew these things about them. Most glaringly, Ms Shattuck neglects to tell us anything about Eliot's equestrian training, a lapse that gives his recreation of the Midnight Ride the discordant jingling of magic realism. My estimate is that The Hazards of Good Breeding is missing a fifth of the pages that would have made it truly complete. To put it another way, Hazards reads like a super-long short story, with all of the elisions that make short fiction 'evocative.' But this is the kind of fault that only engaging, sympathetic novels lead one to find. It's  because one cares about the Dunlaps that one wants to know more about them. I am grateful to Jessica Shattuck for the pleasures of this novel, and even if she doesn't learn to take longer breaths, and not to fear trying her readers' patience, I expect I'll find many pleasures in the work to come.

Does her title allude to William Dean Howell's classic of 1890, A Hazard of New Fortunes? That book, which centers on the problems of setting up house in New York City while trying to get a new magazine going, is certainly not about families that have lived in Concord since before the American Revolution, but it shares a certain rootlessness with the newer novel. For despite its antiquity, the Dunlap family has lost its moorings. Jack's new fortune is one sign of this; he has struck out on his own in much the same way that his ancestors left England for the New World. But for all his toughness he lacks the authority to impress his stoicism on his children (the twins, off on the ski slopes, seem little better than delinquents). Losing moorings may be the Dunlaps' salvation, spurring them away from what Caroline calls a "thoroughly disproven way of living," but at the end of the novel the only new thing that their family has to offer Caroline and Eliot is an unexpected half-sibling. What the title does refer to is the intensification of traits, good and bad, entailed by the careful breeding of animals and humans alike. Between Faith's breakdown and Rosita's pregnancy, however, it almost seems that the Dunlaps have wisely given it up. (April 2003)

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