Wednesday, November 9, 2011

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

It's hard to see a novel titled This Beautiful Life without thinking the title must be ironic. And, indeed, while the Bergamot family enjoys many advantages, the first member we meet--mother Lizzie--seems to be having difficulty finding a place for herself since the family relocated to Manhattan from Ithaca. Driven to succeed in his new job--a high-level administrative position at a New York university (modeled on Columbia, I think)--father Richard has drifted away from the family. The children--teenager Jake and kindergartener Coco--have both found friends for themselves at their private school. Early in the book, both are at parties--Coco at a sleepover at the Plaza for a friend's birthday and Jake at the home of a girl whose parents are out of town.

Making out with the 14-year-old who hosted the party leads to the events that cause the nearly complete unraveling of the family. The morning after the party, the girl, Daisy Cavanaugh, sends Jake a pornographic video of herself. Shocked, he forwards the message to a friend. The inevitable happens--the video goes viral. By Monday morning, the proverbial shit has hit the fan. The head of school calls Jake's parents--Richard is in an important meeting and cannot/will not leave, so Lizzie goes in alone. The headmaster requires Lizzie and Jake to watch the video in his presence--an indicator of how badly everyone involved handles the problem.

While there are some small surprises as the family deals with the fallout, most of the consequences are predictable. By telling us at the end of the book that Jake's young adult life does not go well, Schulman does not even let readers consider the possible outcomes and how they might be achieved.

This Beautiful Life is certainly a cautionary tale for parents (talk to your kids about privacy and appropriate responses to unwanted sexting), but as a novel, I didn't find it compelling.

Favorite passage:
Sex as a wild and wooly continent, there to be navigated and explored, had been usurped by her son's contemporaries, just as she supposed she and her cohort had once done to their parents--although perhaps a tad less dramatically. Liz thought. Generation after generation of teenagers invading this mysterious and previously "adults only" floating island, laying down the flag of ownership and declaring the previous inhabitants obsolete.

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