Near the end of Helen Schulman's new novel, successful (by all accounts) wife and mother Lizzie Bergamot says to her husband, Richard, "I know it sounds ungrateful, and I am not ungrateful. I am very, very grateful…it's just that this beautiful life…I can't manage it."
"Reading this book feels a bit like wandering, tipsy, into a high school party. Fast-paced, heady, even a little disorienting, THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE rockets forward at a pace that some readers...may find unsettling. But that's kind of the point..."
"This beautiful life," which is, of course, also the title of Schulman's book, is one that most readers would envy, at least on the surface of things. Lizzie and her husband have recently moved from Ithaca, New York, to Manhattan's Upper East Side. There Richard oversees administration and development for a world-class university, while Lizzie supervises social and academic activities for their free-spirited adopted kindergarten-aged daughter Coco and their teenage son Jake.
But readers will recognize that the seeds of the family's potential destruction are there from the very beginning. Richard is handsome and ambitious, largely oblivious to warning signs at home. Lizzie, a former art historian, struggles to find identity as a full-time wife and mother. She drinks too much, despises the other moms, and questions their decision to move to Manhattan in the first place.
So although the crisis that precipitates the novel's action originates with Jake, it's hardly an event that can be dealt with in isolation. Jake is a student at an exclusive private school, an atmosphere that proves as difficult for him to navigate as it is for Lizzie. He has found a group of friends, but is still a little at sea. He pines after an unattainable girl, but one night at a party he makes do by hooking up with a precocious 13-year-old named Daisy. When, drunk but regretful, he tells Daisy that she's "too young" for him, she sets out to prove --- via a graphic online video --- that she's plenty old enough. When Jake receives her erotic email, he forwards it to a friend --- and in the nature of such things, the video soon goes viral, and Jake is at the center of a national scandal.
Obviously the pressures of this very public crisis throw the Bergamot family's weaknesses and stresses into high relief. Although ostensibly about the legal and social implications of "sexting," the novel is actually an exploration of the ways in which all sorts of pressures conspire to tear apart even the most beautiful, secure, enviable families. It's no wonder that Schulman's publisher chose to put a house of cards on the book jacket cover. The fragility of modern family life, even in the most financially secure neighborhoods, is at the heart of THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE.
Reading this book feels a bit like wandering, tipsy, into a high school party. Fast-paced, heady, even a little disorienting, THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE rockets forward at a pace that some readers --- those more accustomed to the traditional problem novels of Jodi Picoult or the upper-class explorations of authors like Ayelet Waldman --- may find unsettling. But that's kind of the point, after all, as Schulman illustrates --- by bringing readers along with her --- just how rapidly and nonsensically whole lives can come tumbling down.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 28, 2011
This Beautiful Life