Book Talk: *This Beautiful Life*, by Helen Schulman



This Beautiful Life: A Novel
Helen Schulman
Harper (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0062024388 / 9780062024381)
Contemporary fiction, 240 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date 8/2/2011)
Reason for reading: personal, review copy

Opening lines: “Her mouth filled the screen. Purple lip gloss, clear braces.

“‘Still think I’m too young?’

“She leaned over, the fixed lens of the camera catching a tiny spray of blemishes on her cheek, like a comet’s spray. Her hair had been bleached white, with long, blond roots, and most of it was pulled back into a chunky ponytail above the three plastic hoops climbing the rim of her ear.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: When the Bergamots move from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City, they’re not quite sure how they’ll adapt—or what to make of the strange new world of well-to-do Manhattan. Soon, though, Richard is consumed by his executive role at a large New York university, and Liz, who has traded in her academic career to oversee the lives of their children, is hectically ferrying young Coco around town.
Fifteen-year-old Jake is gratefully taken into the fold by a group of friends at Wildwood, an elite private school.
But the upper-class cocoon in which they have enveloped themselves is ripped apart when Jake wakes up one morning after an unchaperoned party and finds an email in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. Attached is a sexually explicit video she has made for him. Shocked, stunned, maybe a little proud, and scared—a jumble of adolescent emotion—he forwards the video to a friend, who then forwards it to a friend. Within hours, it’s gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world.
The ensuing scandal threatens to shatter the Bergamots’ sense of security and identity, and, ultimately, their happiness. They are a good family faced with bad choices, and how they choose to react, individually and at one another’s behest, places everything they hold dear in jeopardy.

Comments: This Beautiful Life is both strikingly of the moment and just a bit behind the times. Its events take place in 2003, a time when many of us were starting to live online, but when the most common way to share over the internet was still via e-mail. A story in which the catalyst is a video that goes viral might play out a bit differently now, in the YouTube/Facebook era. Having said that, while the details place the novel in a very specific time and place, Helen Schulman has crafted a timeless, resonant story that dissects choices and their consequences, looking at one family’s “beautiful life” at the instant it’s on the verge of shattering.

Both Richard and Liz Bergamot have been strivers – Richard is the first in his family to graduate high school, let alone college and beyond, while Liz grew up in a single-parent home in the North Bronx. Together since graduate school, they have made choices in their marriage that define their roles and spheres within it. When Richard accepts a job leading the expansion of a major Manhattan university, that choice moves the family from small, bohemian-flavored Ithaca, New York to the Upper West Side and effectively back-burners Liz’s career for the duration. Spaces are made for their children, Jake and Coco, at an elite private school. It’s a new world for them all, and just as they’re finding their way, it’s blown apart by a 13-year-old girl’s bad choice to make an explicit video and e-mail it to a 15-year-old; the 15-year-old’s bad choice to forward the e-mail; and the parents’ difficult choices about how to handle the fallout.

While the novel is primarily event-driven, the hook resides in how the primary characters react to the events, and Schulman reveals this though the alternating perspectives of Liz, Jake, and Richard. It’s interesting to view these characters though one another’s eyes, and the author succeeded in making me feel sympathetic toward all of them; there are really neither heroes nor villains here, and the emotional charge and challenge of their situation feels authentic.

Another hook for me was Schulman’s use of specific place references that I knew personally. I was part of the Cornell University community in Ithaca (as a grad-student spouse) for several years, and I recognized places that came up in Liz’s reflections on the family’s life there, but Ithaca’s appearances in fiction don’t really take me by surprise any more. I was surprised that Liz grew up in that “middle-class housing project” in the Bronx, Co-op City, however; my great-aunts lived there, and frequent visits made it part of the landscape of my childhood. I don’t see it show up often in my reading, though.

This Beautiful Life got its hooks into me immediately, and I think it will stay with me for awhile – there’s a lot to think about, and talk about, here.

Rating: 4/5

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