Review: This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life is American author Helen Schulman’s fifth novel, but I’d never heard of her until I read the positive reviews for her latest effort, a tale of what The New York Times calls “a total family breakdown, 21st-century Manhattan style.” The book is good, and very readable, but ultimately it feels slight, although the lessons it has to impart aren’t mundane.

Though I usually don’t admit this in public forums, I believe (if only mildly) that the Internet is ultimately going to be the downfall of civilization. In this respect, This Beautiful Life is a rather timely novel. It follows the Bergamots, a family of four (brilliant/successful husband; equally brilliant wife who had the luxury of choosing to give up work for her family; teenage son with the usual insecurities; and six-year-old vivacious adopted Chinese daughter, the Maddox Jolie-Pitt of this bubble of affluence and urbanity) who move from Ithaca to “the city” so the patriarch can take some important-sounding job at a university that’s meant to be Columbia but is called something else. The kids go to a fancy private school, the husband spends his days in Important Meetings and the wife keeps maintaining how busy she is, what with yoga class and picking the kids up from school. If this all sounds clichéd, well, it’s meant to. The Bergamots have the Life Everybody Wants: They’re absurdly well-educated, rich, good-looking, blah blah blah. This house of cards teeters, however (see book cover) when Jake, the fifteen-year-old, goes to one of those parties we’re all too familiar with and a rich thirteen-year-old named Daisy, whose parents are always away on business trips, comes on to him. He resists her advances and, over the weekend, she sends him a video asking him, in no uncertain terms, to reconsider—which is to say she performs sex acts with a toy baseball bat. A confused/flattered/amazed/shocked Jake forwards the video to his best friend and the friend forwards it to another friend and pretty soon the thing has become an Internet sensation, Jake and his friends are suspended, and everybody’s futures are in jeopardy.  

The novel’s subject isn’t uninteresting. Earlier this year, a shockingly similar scandal erupted in Olympia, Washington after an eighth-grader sent a nude photo of herself to her “boyfriend” and the guy forwarded it on to the girl’s vindictive former best friend. Obviously, there are a few tragedies at play here: that young women believe that highly-sexualized images/videos are the only way to get and keep a man’s attention; that one can make an ill-advised but ultimately very understandable decision to forward one of these come-ons to a friend for either help or validation, completely unaware that he might be violating child-pornography laws; and, of course, that anybody could possibly be so stupid as to put something of such a…senstive nature in an email or text message. (Of course, we’re talking about kids here, and kids never know any better. But if the Anthony Weiner scandal taught us anything, it’s that grown men are perfectly capable of deluding themselves, believing they’ll never get caught or nothing bad will ever come from their little Internet indulgences because God has simply hand-picked them for the pantheon of unbridled, unendangered success and privilege.)

Helen Schulman makes you genuinely sympathize with both Jake and Daisy, confused teenagers trying to find their way through an unflinchingly hostile world. We’ve all been there, and I think anybody can relate to the possibility of one poor decision haunting you for the rest of your life. The book—set in the early-2000s—also, and as Janet Maslin pointed out in The New York Times, has the potential to use hindsight to its advantage, to paint some kind of Big Picture about new-millennium sexual mores or Internet culture or what-have-you. But the novel’s lens is very small, and very focused. In many ways, this decision to lavish attention on the tiny details makes the story feel more intimate, but one can’t help feeling like the author is missing a grand opportunity here to make some kind of larger statement (in a delicate, non-obvious way, of course).

There’s a scene where Jake reads The Great Gatsby and sort of reflects on how successful rich people always blithely assume everything will always work out for them because it never hasn’t, and I particularly liked the part where Jake’s crush, Audrey (like Jake’s sister, a Chinese girl adopted by an affluent white family) comments on the boys she disdains but feels the need to placate socially, for whatever reason. And Schulman is a beautiful writer. But the novel just felt…small, and maybe that’s just because the world it inhabits is, too. I don’t mean that suddenly we’re supposed to think the lives of those who do well are irrelevant just because of the recession or because the Occupy Wall Street crowd is occupying Wall Street, but you kind of want to shake these people who really don’t get how the other half (make that the other 99 percent) lives, who truly cannot see outside their own cocoons. And, to be fair, I think Schulman probably intended to make this point…but she could have tried a little harder.

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