Hazards of Good Breeding

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"Reading Jessica Shattuck's pitch perfect first novel is like spying on the children and grandchildren of John Cheever's Wapshots."—Los Angeles Times
This "richly appointed and generously portrayed" (Kirkus Reviews) debut novel tells the story of a WASPy, old-Boston family coming face to face with an America much larger than the one it was born in. Told from five perspectives, the novel spans an explosive week in the life of the Dunlaps, culminating in a series of events that ...

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"Reading Jessica Shattuck's pitch perfect first novel is like spying on the children and grandchildren of John Cheever's Wapshots."—Los Angeles Times
This "richly appointed and generously portrayed" (Kirkus Reviews) debut novel tells the story of a WASPy, old-Boston family coming face to face with an America much larger than the one it was born in. Told from five perspectives, the novel spans an explosive week in the life of the Dunlaps, culminating in a series of events that will change their way of life forever.
Caroline Dunlap has written off the insular world of the Boston deb parties, golf club luaus, and WASP weddings that she grew up with. But when she reluctantly returns home after her college graduation, she finds that not everything is quite as predictable, or protected, as she had imagined. Her father, the eccentric, puritanical Jack Dunlap, is carrying on stoically after the breakup of his marriage, but he can't stop thinking of Rosita, the family housekeeper he fired almost six months ago. Caroline's little brother, Eliot, is working on a giant papier-mâché diorama of their town-or is he hatching a plan of larger proportions?
As the real reason for Rosita's departure is revealed, the novel culminates in a series of events that assault the fragile, sheltered, and arguably obsolete world of the Dunlaps.
Opening a window into a family's repressed desires and fears, The Hazards of Good Breeding is a startlingly perceptive comedy of manners that heralds a new writer of dazzling talent.

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Editorial Reviews

“Will naturally be compared to Cheever's stories and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. What's more surprising is that it deserves a place beside those masterpieces.”
New York Times
“In her poised and astute first novel....Shattuck unleashes a skewering gift for social commentary.”
Maureen Howard
“Shattuck's romantic comedy will remind readers of the wit and energy of Cheever's Wapshot Chronicles.”
Roxana Robinson
“[A] thoughtful and elegant first novel, full of insight and humor.”
Jill McCorkle
“[A]ll that the title promises and more. It is a terrific debut by a talented writer.”
Ann Beattie
“An excellent novel about feeling, complex people.....every bit as affecting as Richard Yates' magnificent Revolutionary Road.”
Binnie Kirshenbaum
“[A] sterling novel; a deliciously comic and deeply profound look at an American family, indeed at America itself.”
Helen Shulman
“There are at least 15 certifiable pleasures in every paragraph of this charming, intelligent, and exceedingly well-crafted debut.”
The New York Times
Shattuck's boldest move is her ending, which for a time seems in danger of being harmonious to the point of suspicion. But in the book's final section, told for the first time from Rosita's point of view, Shattuck blows a hole through this bonhomie. It's a risky move, but it's the one that finally elevates The Hazards of Good Breeding from a witty and promising first novel to a disturbing indictment of a superannuated subculture. — Jennifer Egan
Maureen Howard
Shattuck's romantic comedy will remind readers of the wit and energy of Cheever's Wapshot Chronicles.
Publishers Weekly
Shattuck's debut novel is a social comedy, with flashes of darker import, about an upper-crust Boston suburban family forced to come to terms with the pressures of contemporary life and the ways in which they succeed, or more frequently fail. Patriarch Jack Dunlap is a rigid, seemingly puritanical businessman whose stern eccentricities have driven his wife, Faith, out of the house and into a state of nervous exhaustion. Daughter Caroline, made of sterner stuff, is trying to get used to the family weirdness again after graduating from college and returning home to decide what to do with her life-which will probably not include continuing to see an old beau, pot-smoking Rock. Her little brother, Eliot, is attempting to come to terms with the loss of his beloved Colombian babysitter, Rosita, fired under mysterious circumstances. It is Rosita, a symbol of strength and resilience amid the flaky denizens of her adopted country, who becomes the center around which the anxieties and obsessions of the principals revolve, and she is perhaps too easy a symbol. Shattuck is an observant and graceful writer, and contrives some elegant and touching scenes, particularly as Faith begins to recover a sense of her womanhood with a charming French visitor. But the book, for all its virtues, feels excessively schematic, and various plot strands-like Caroline's involvement with a documentary filmmaker-are dropped too summarily. Blurbs compare it to the work of Richard Yates and John Cheever, but it has neither the somber anguish of the former or the comic, off-center lan of the latter. (Feb.) Forecast: The well-observed New England setting and characters could help this title to do well locally-Shattuck will tour the Northeast-but it's rather quiet to make much of a mark on the national scene. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Shattuck's first novel seems determined to demonstrate why the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling class is dying out. The Dunlop family of Concord, MA, and their tony social set are heavy-handedly portrayed as self-absorbed and superficial, showing little benefit from their Harvard educations. Father Jack dabbles with a company involved in ruthless acquisitions and has divorced Faith, who suffered a mental breakdown and moved to New York. Daughter Caroline, a recent Harvard graduate, has moved back home with no prospect of a job; her Zonker-like friend, Rock, has the run of the house. Meanwhile, Eliot, the youngest, bears the brunt of these empty lives, especially after his beloved Colombian babysitter, Rosita, is summarily fired. (We soon learn, along with family members, that Jack had a brief affair with her.) Shattuck tries to take us inside the heads of several characters, but the novel's overall condemning tone dominates. Shattuck would have done better to focus on crafting the story instead of making a comment on WASP irresponsibility. A marginal purchase.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 knowingwhat'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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393324839
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/19/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jessica Shattuck

Jessica Shattuck is the author of The Hazards of Good Breeding (a New York Times Notable Book and a Winship/PEN Award finalist) and Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Believer, Wired, Mother Jones, and Glamour, among other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Shattuck shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself:

"My first job was, honest to God, walking around this big dilapidated public playing field/ park area in Cambridge, MA, picking up garbage with one of those sticks with a little grabber at the end of it. I was in eighth grade and the job was through some sort of city summer jobs program that I'm not sure how I ended up in."

"I have a terrible phobia of birds, and no, I've never seen the movie. Oddly birds do seem to work their way into my fiction in strange ways though."

"I love dogs and have a crazy three year old border collie mix named Winnie who is my daily writing companion."

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    1. Hometown:
      Cambridge, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 2, 1972
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. Harvard College, 1994; M.F.A. in Writing, Columbia University, 2001

Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Jessica Shattuck's debut novel is hard to describe without using the age old term "comedy of manners," but the phrase is misleading. The Hazards of Good Breeding is certainly an exploration, in a comic mode, of the somewhat embattled remnant of the once-powerful Northeastern blueblood class. And its focus on the world of the Dunlaps, a longstanding Boston area family of means who have been splintered by very modern circumstances, means that Shattuck can keep her gimlet eye trained on the issues that have captivated novelists from Jane Austen to Edith Wharton and Henry James. Reading groups will find that, like these writers, Shattuck peers beneath the veneer of refined education and comfortable circumstances, showing how the members of these sorts of close-knit, often highly traditional circles find themselves prey to the same kinds of drives and needs which are common to the wider world.

But while privilege, education and "good breeding" characterize the world of the Dunlaps, Shattuck is not in this novel out to satirize her subjects. Book clubs will be drawn to this book and particularly to several of its appealingly dysfunctional major characters, precisely because of the compassion and complexity with which the author treats her creations. They include Caroline Dunlap, whose post-collegiate uncertainty has brought her back to the crumbling 200-year-old family homestead she both loves and despises, to her father Jack, soldiering on after the breakup of his marriage, to the rudderless Rock Coughlin, Caroline's childhood friend who is thinking about becoming a Tibetan monk. Reading groups will find that Shattuck has made it impossible to dismiss these figures-- even as she sends up the world in which they live.

As the novel builds to a carefully foreshadowed crisis and climax, the two figures who emerge as the twin moral centers of this keenly observed little universe are Rosita, the former housekeeper for the Dunlaps, and ten-year-old Eliot, a precocious boy whose love for Rosita (his surrogate mother) has never left him -- and provides him with a secret determination. The forces which Shattuck charts in this study of repression, neglect, postponement, and self-delusion are not pleasant to confront; but reading groups will love discussing how the author places each Dunlap in a position where he or she must confront unspoken -- and even dangerous -- assumptions. The transformation she effects in her conclusion is stunning, and book clubs are sure to debate both the circumstances and the rightness of all the choices made in the book's memorable end. The Hazards of Good Breeding may bid adieu to a hoary set of social traditions, but when it's over, readers may be forgiven for not wanting to say goodbye. Bill Tipper

The Author on Her Work
A few summers ago, I was visiting friends at their summer house&#151a rambling, pedigreed old house on the Massachusetts shore. It was a bright, beautiful, hot July day and it was absolutely quiet&#151people were napping, or reading on the big old front porch, or lying out on the dock below, listening to the slap of waves. I decided to take a walk.

From this quiet corner of the world I ventured down a dirt road, which turned to pavement, and which brought me to the next town over&#151home to a whole different New England beach scene. Here the houses were chock-a-block, lining the street across from the water, their windows decorated with flags and cardboard cutouts of sea shells, their decks full of coolers of beer and collapsible beach chairs. There were people playing radios and games of football, lots of movement, activity, and noise. It was less than a mile away from the house I had come from but it felt like an altogether different, and in many ways more vibrant, world.

There was a melancholy that came with the peace and quiet of the secluded place I as visiting and, in contrast, a frenetic, contagious energy in this less exclusive, more modern place I had walked to. And the contrast was interesting to me. The Waspy old New England house seemed like part of an obsolete story, a vestige of a one-time American dream. This crowded strip of row houses seemed closer to the heart of the new America&#151a place where people long to be Hollywood celebrities, not members of old families, where the immigrant success story trumps lineage any day.

It made me think of people caught between these two worlds&#151by choice, by inertia, or by circumstance&#151people living in an America much larger than the one they were raised to inhabit. And with that came Faith Dunlap, a woman stunted by her life&#151long adherence to other people's sense of right and wrong, and her ex-husband Jack, an arrogant man, resistant to change and isolated by his own stubbornness. And then their children, Caroline and Eliot, both struggling to break out of the claustrophobic and increasingly irrelevant social order their family lives by.

Of course, at the time what happened was more immediate. I imagined Caroline Dunlap, a young woman in some ways like myself at her age, and in other ways not at all, coming home to a house much like the one I had left on that hot summer day. And then her mother, Faith, packing her suitcase&#151a fragile, but resilient woman completely unlike my mother, but yet so familiar to me it was as if I'd known her my whole life. And then Eliot, Rock, and finally Jack Dunlap, who I was a little bit afraid of, but who I knew I would have to give a voice. And the book took off from there. I wrote the first hundred pages at a racing clip, and then had to stop and unravel where it was all going: what exactly Eliot was up to, what Jack was going to do, how Caroline and Faith would be affected by the outsiders they had taken up with. I came to love my characters, for all their flaws, and I miss them now that I'm done writing the book.

I think of The Hazards of Good Breeding as being about individuals and families and love and frustration more than I think of it as being specifically about WASPS. The Dunlaps, like so many people out there, have hemmed themselves in with their own traditions, sense of propriety, and social insularity&#151and they are each struggling, in their own ways, to realize essential connections between their lives and the lives of others outside the narrow slice of the world they inhabit. Whether they succeed or not is up to each reader to decide for him or herself.

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. How does Caroline Dunlap change over the course of the novel? How might her choices for post-college life have taken a new direction?

2. Jack Dunlap is an inscrutable man to all who know him. How does Shattuck manage to elicit our sympathy toward him?

3. The Hazards of Good Breeding is a comedy of manners with dark undercurrents. How do these come to the surface over the course of the novel? What do they reveal about the Dunlaps' world?

4. Why is Faith Dunlap attracted to Jean Pierre?

5. The novel is very much about people's public front versus their interior worlds. How does the theme of role-playing manifest itself throughout the novel?

6. The Hazards of Good Breeding is told from five different perspectives. How does this shifting point of view (first we see through Caroline's eyes, then Eliot's, then Rock's, etc.) affect our reading of the book and our understanding of the events that unfold?

7. What does Paul Revere's ride embody for Eliot Dunlap?

8. Is Jack in love with Rosita?

9. Describe the role of humor in Shattuck's society portrait. Given that this is in some ways a story about a fragmented family at a moment of crisis, why didn't she choose a more sober tone?

10. What does Caroline realize from her experiences with Stefan?

11. Caroline is initially dismissive of Rock Coughlin. What accounts for her change of heart by the novel's end?

12. How does Shattuck's story relate to a larger portrait of contemporary America?

13. How does The Hazards of Good Breeding fit into the American literary tradition of authors like John Cheever and John Updike? What other writers' work does Shattuck's novel call to mind?

14. What are the "hazards of good breeding" in this book?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2004

    Very Good

    This was a very good book in a long string of good books I have recently read that were set in New England. It's very similar to Nancy Clark's The Hills at Home. Both have a New England family with it's blue-blood life becoming less and less relevant in the present day. And both have the family being documented by a young man who gets a little too close to the subject. The Hills at Home, however, made me feel as if I was in the house with the Hills, where Hazards felt like I was watching a documentary of the family. Plus, where Hazards was occasionally funny, The Hills was often laugh-out-loud funny. The Hazards of Good Breeding was a very good book, very well written, but came too soon after reading The Hills at Home to make me forget that excellent book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2004

    She's trying too hard...

    The writing of this book really distracted me from the plot. It felt like the work of someone who's just taken a class in creative writing, and looks for every opening to use any literary elements possible. The amount of similes used in the first 25 pages almost made me stop reading altogether. The dialogue was a bit forced and various situations in the book just didn't seem believable. I didn't like Shattuck's tendency to take the role of the completely omniscient narrator, laying out in the beginning of the book everything about the characters' lives in a 'just-so' manner, and somehow linking that in really trite fashion to their inner personalities ('There is something secretive, but not dishonest, about his demeanor that comes, maybe, because in his lifetime he has already had so much exposure to silence.'). I also thought that the choice of writing the entire book in the present tense made it awkward. However, once I got through the style, I did find myself hooked by the plot and ended up finishing. It seems Shattuck tried to write the 'Great American Novel' her first time out and failed, but ended up with a fairly compelling beach read instead.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2003

    Much More Than A Deft Social Commentary...

    Gripping and unpredictable, this book blew me away. Isn't WASP-dom a tired subject? Not in this sharp, funny yet elegaic account of an old world family struggling with modern life. The characters are deeply memorable, their inner lives complex yet all too real. Amazing. The best novel i've read this year.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2003

    Does Anyone Know

    if this is the same Jessica Shattuck who used to cover the video game sector? If it is, then one person applauds her grand escape. I am going to buy this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2003


    This is a lovely lyrical and perceptive book, rich with local color and larger significance. It shrewdly updates the comedy of manners and uses the anthropological technique of that genre to canny ends.

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    Posted December 24, 2009

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    Posted May 19, 2009

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