Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life 
by Helen Schulman
Harper Perennial 
222 pgs. 

The Bergamots are a typical upper-middle class family who recently relocated to New York City from Ithaca. There's Liz, a wound-way-too-tight, former art historian turned stay-at-home, semi-helicopter parent of a mom who has nothing better to do but e-stalk an ex-boyfriend's blog and obsess over whether she loves her kids too much.

She's married to Richard, whose prestigious and high-powered job at fictitious Astor University is the reason the Bergamot family relocated to New York City in the first place. There's adorable, spirited six year old Coco, whom Liz and Richard adopted from China and who has a coterie of friends at her swanky private school.

And then ... there's 15 year old Jake, just doing his best to fit in with his friends at his new school. He's on the cusp of the awkward beginnings of independence while trying to be cool and trying unsuccessfully to get the attention of Audrey, a girl he likes but who happens to be otherwise attached.

As I said, Jake's a typical 15 year old guy, with hormones firing on all cylinders and then some. So after he and 13 year old Daisy hook up at a party after too much beer, and he (rightfully so) tells her she's too young for such shenanigans, Daisy tries wooing him back by emailing him a video of herself in a compromising position. (Read between the lines here, folks, as I'm trying to avoid the spam and Google hits from getting even crazier than usual).

What does Jake do? Well, he's a little confused and perplexed and amused by said video ... but he does what any 15 year old boy would do:  he forwards it to his best friend.

Who forwards it to his twin brother. Who forwards it to his best friend. And then, well, you can guess what happens. What poor naive Daisy (who is neither poor nor naive) thought would only be for Jake's eyes winds up going viral - and it's all Jake's fault.

This Beautiful Life focuses on the aftermath and the consequences that occur as a result of the video's explosion into cyberspace, and the destructive effect it has on the Bergamot family. Because of one mistake and one split-second decision, each person's sense of security and what is truly a "beautiful life" (this family doesn't want for anything, believe you me) is shaken. It's a compelling premise, and even though the novel is set in 2003 when all this was still uncharted territory, it resonates with parents and anyone who cares for kids because nine years later, we've seen where this Pandora's Box has led.

That being said, as much as I thought I would like this book (and wanted to), I felt that This Beautiful Life had too many issues in regard to the undeveloped characters, the writing style, and the plot.  Let's start with the characters, shall we?

They could not have possibly been more stereotypical. I'll be blunt here: I'm tired of "yummy mummies" (an adjective/noun combo special that I cannot stand) whose playdates with their adorable cherubs consist of going to tea party sleepovers at The fucking Plaza Hotel and who whine about the headmistress of the school where their husbands are "legacy" alums, and how hard their goddamn lives are because they can't manage to decide if their kid should be taking ballet or African dance lessons, and who bitch about the cost of organic frozen strawberries. I hate people like that - which means that in reading This Beautiful Life, Liz Bergamot and her so-called friends were not people I cared to spend much time with.

(I do think the setting of 2003 worked against the novel in that aspect, at least for me. In these recessionary times when so many people continue to struggle, reading about people with lifestyles like that is kind of a turnoff to me.)

Liz and Richard's reactions to Daisy's video and their behavior in the aftermath of their son receiving and forwarding it struck me as ... maddening.  I get wanting to protect your kid and being angry at the other party, and I know all too many parents carry the mantle of "my kid can do no wrong." I understand that. But there's absolutely no acceptance of personal responsibility here and no culpability on the part of the parents, no self-examination of what within themselves or within their family led to this. They don't go into counseling; they barely discuss the incident at all. They just disintegrate into themselves, which is sad and perhaps a realistic reaction, but a missed opportunity, in my view.

Not to mention, Richard's reaction as a father while watching this video of a 13 year old prancing to Beyonce was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies:
"And for all the video's dismal raunch, its tawdriness, for all its sexual immaturity and unknowingness, there is something about the way this girl has revealed herself, the way that she has offered herself, truly stripped herself bare, that is brave and powerful and potent and ridiculous and self-immolating and completely nuts. It speaks to him. Is he crazy? He feels crazier in this moment than he has ever felt in his life. He feels touched by it. And because the video is all of these things and more, because in some way it is truly the literal essence of what it means to be naked, because this Daisy makes herself completely vulnerable and open and 100 percent exposed, it also breaks Richard's heart." (pg. 118)
Stop right there and get thee to the nearest psychologist, dude. THE GIRL IS ALL OF 13 and making a suggestive video to get attention from a boy! I'm sorry, but there's nothing brave or empowering about that and the fact that this Dad is trying to convince me as a reader that there IS ... well, that's the sort of thing that makes my personal Creepmeter turn purple.

The overall writing style of was, in my opinion, somewhat bland and at times, confusing. For example, while waiting in their lawyer's office, Richard realizes that the lawyer
"holds [his] son's future in his hands. This is a little like waiting for a neurosurgeon, Richard thinks, and then stops the thought, blocks it. The analogy is too terrible and too frightening." (pg. 107). 
Huh? Why? What am I missing here? (Richard's father died when Richard was young, but of a heart attack, not of a brain tumor or something, which would make this more logical.)  There are several other head-scratching, what-the-? instances where this sort of thing occurred, so many things left unexplained, the ending rushed and seemingly tacked on as an afterthought. Even the symbolism and connection to The Great Gatsby seemed to be gratuitous, thrown in there as a tangent, when it could have been much stronger and emphasized.

Speaking of gratuitous, within the writing itself there are too many phrases and scenes that seem included for the shock value factor. This might sound a little hypocritical coming from me, as I fully admit to dropping an f-bomb or two on occasion, but Schulman's prose in this novel tends to include such off-putting phrases like "In Ithaca, where they lived pretty fucking happily the last ten years ..." (pg. 5) and nine pages later, "She reveled in the privacy. That was life in Ithaca, and it did not suck." (pg. 14). There's a description on page 175 of Liz "in yoga pants, a wife-beater." (What's wrong with saying a tank top?) Again, I'm no prude, but I found these word choices unnecessary.

Ultimately, in my opinion, I felt that there were too many instances throughout this novel where either the writing style or the characters' actions detracted from what promised to be a truly provocative story, for all the right reasons. 

The one exception was with the character of Jake. I thought that Schulman captured Jake and his peers very well. Their conversations and actions, their angst and their desire to fit in, felt authentic to me.  Even though I don't have a 15 year old, my work brings me into contact with many of them and the descriptions and the dialogue seemed real. It almost made me wonder if This Beautiful Life would have worked better - or have been more powerful - as more of a young adult focused novel. As it is, it seems to be one targeted for a parental audience, one that would strike fear into any parent's heart that this could happen to any of us.

But I think it misses the mark on that because these characters are too unrelatable personally and their 2003 lifestyle too distant from the 2012 reality that so many of us have. I can't imagine living anywhere near the kind of lifestyle that these people do. They're nothing like me. So if the theme is about the disintegration of a family after such an event and them wringing their hands over what they potentially stand to lose, then I'm not going to be able to identify with that because so many people have lost everything, you know?  I know I'm harping on that, but I truly could not get past that aspect of this novel.

We also know much more now in terms of sexting and the legal ramifications, and it's hard to place oneself back almost a decade ago. But if the message is one of a cautionary one, one directed to a teenage audience, maybe that would have been better reinforced if the story itself had been told through Jake's eyes only ... just like the video was meant to be.

I wished I liked This Beautiful Life more than I did.  Still, I'm grateful to TLC Book Tours for including me on the tour and for Harper Perennial for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for my (probably all too) honest review, for which I wasn't compensated in any way.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Clearly, I am very much in the minority with my thoughts on this book, if my other blogger friends on the book tour are any indication.  All of the reviews on the TLC Book Tour before mine give This Beautiful Life some high praise and I encourage you to check out their words for yourself here:


Some additional reviews are here (I am absolutely, definitely in the minority with my review):

3Rs Blog
5 Minutes for Books
A Musing Reviews
A Patchwork of Books
Book Chick Di
Book'd Out
Unruly Reader
You've GOTTA Read This

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

You make a good point about the differences in lifestyles today compared to just a few years ago. Funny how changes in the world around us can make a book feel out of date sooner than we'd expect.

I'm sorry this one didn't turn out to be exactly your cup of tea, but thanks for being on the tour.

Meg said...

Very interesting and thoughtful review, and I second that both the phrase and personification of "yummy mummies" makes me shiver with distaste! Don't think this would be a read for me.