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Book Review: The Hazards of Good Breeding by Jessica Shattuck

Published March 5, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

Jack Dunlap is the patriarch of a family whose generations have lived on the same property in Concord, Massachusetts, since the time of Paul Revere's famous ride. They were born with silver spoons in their mouths, ink-blue blood coursing through their veins, and the gene for WASP communication -- or, more precisely, a stark lack thereof. "When did talking ever bring anyone anything but grief?" asks Jack. In Norwich author Jessica Shattuck's witty and wonderful first novel, The Hazards of Good Breeding, the Dunlaps are experiencing growing pains -- some holding onto their WASPdom for dear life, others trying to shuck it off like last season's cocktail dress.

Shattuck leads us across the landscape of Boston's languishing Brahmin aristocracy -- a world of cotillions and country houses, prep-school privilege and membership to exclusive golf and tennis clubs. But for all their Ivy League educations, fancy-pants connections and old money, the Dunlaps are finding that "bucking up" and keeping a stiff upper lip is not the most fulfilling way to live. All those repressed feelings and unspoken desires, tucked so expertly behind leather-bound editions of Auden and Yeats, only keep them further from themselves and those they love.

Caroline, freshly minted from Harvard, returns home to find her family fraying noticeably around the edges. Her once privileged and protected world is now a messy, confusing one, with divorced parents, an emotionally undone mother living her "own life" in Manhattan, and a little brother whose best companion is a mysterious papier-mâche model he keeps hidden in his room.

To top things off, the housekeeper/ babysitter who had held things together at the old Concord house has been inexplicably fired. All around her, the members of Caroline's family are acting increasingly peculiar and disconnected.

Take her father Jack. Known as a man who "likes to drink bourbon straight and climb mountains in torrential downpours without complaining," he spends the wee hours of most nights building intricate Revolutionary War dioramas in the basement. He also raises sleek and exuberant blue heelers -- dogs descended from the first of their kind in America and no doubt listed in some elitist breeder's dossier. Jack rambles around the "opulent decrepitude" of his house -- the Dunlaps are all about owning property and not spending the family money -- busying himself and ignoring the fact that his little son Eliot, without the proper guidance and love of his parents, is escaping deeper and deeper inside himself.

Then there's Faith, Jack's ex-wife, who's still recuperating from her "rest" at McLean's -- the famous mental hospital that has housed the likes of Sylvia Plath and James Taylor. Faith can hardly hold it together amongst her sturdy, preppy, married friends, let alone muster the "confidence to hug her own 10-year-old son."

Caroline is sandwiched between Eliot -- "the dregs of his parents' conjugal activities" -- and the twins, known best for their boyish pranks at prep school. Back home after graduation, she discovers her feelings are more twisted and tangled than ever. She wants to escape, or at least latch onto something or someone brand-new. Yet she needs to save Eliot, who is clearly falling through the cracks.

While trying to patch together some sort of future, Caroline finds herself at the wedding of Skip Krasdale, a childhood friend she barely likes. There, she looks around at a sea of peers:

...the strange last adherents to a thoroughly disproven way of living -- the children of bystanders of the sixties, of parents whose whole generation passed them by while they stood on the sidelines scratching their heads and staring into stiff drinks, hampered by their own wealthy and good breeding. They are already two steps removed from the dynamic center of the species. Which makes their blind, self-satisfied preservation of their grandparent's ways all the more absurd and at the same time desperate.

Caroline is one of them, but at least she knows it. That's big, bold knowledge -- something that now, as an adult, she should be able to use.

Like her main character, Shattuck has a privileged background and matriculated within the same famous walls of higher education. Because of this -- or perhaps despite it -- she breathes life into Caroline and her other characters with a vivid understanding of and compassion for their world, while never skimping on the humor. We can't help but laugh along with Caroline, for instance, at the abundant Skips, Muffins, Weltys and Mamies -- whose "burning ambition is to make sure the Boston Cotillion stops its slippery slope toward becoming open to just anyone."

We also feel for Caroline while witnessing her dysfunctional family clamping its collective lips. Though the Dunlaps' problems are comparatively small in the greater scope of things, they can still worry at night, feel confused, and wonder if life might offer more than the model established by their parents and their parents' parents before them. Shattuck knows this and never belittles their pain.

The book's conclusion is a bit too neat and tidy, as though Shattuck penned her characters envisioning them on the big screen. But she takes us on a delightful ride along the way. Some of her best characters -- ironically, those with little or no blue blood at all -- are on the sidelines. There's Rock, the pot-smoking, albeit WASP, boy who loves Caroline; Wheelie Barrett, the retired NFL player who mows the Dunlaps' lawn with a pink linen napkin on his head; and Rosita, the clear-sighted Colombian housekeeper fired -- and impregnated -- by Jack.

These secondary figures serve as a sort of foil for Shattuck's central ones and accentuate the very obstacles inherent in their insulated and often unquestioned existence.

Ultimately we find ourselves rooting for this rather emotionally stunted but sympathetic family, hoping that the younger members will change their ways -- or at least abandon the antiquated snobberies that stink of damp Harris tweed.

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