This Beautiful Life
Helen Schulman
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Buy *This Beautiful Life* by Helen Schulman online

This Beautiful Life
Helen Schulman
240 pages
August 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Schulman’s writing in This Beautiful Life is as angst-ridden and as claustrophobic as her subjects: the Bergamot family, their lives buffeted by the thorny brambles of ambition and a provocative teenage girl who emails young Jake Bergamot an X-rated video. Jake is shocked to see Daisy Cavanaugh dancing in that skirt with that music, and no underwear, doing things with a baseball bat.

Jake’s sophisticated, urbane parents, Richard and Liz are unprepared for the video’s fallout. Jake passes Daisy’s email onto his friend Henry, who in turn passes it onto his friends, who watch the video over again. Soon enough it’s everywhere, and the fact that Jake is its inspiration and its muse - and its disseminator - is almost too much to handle.

Richard and Liz have tried, with varying degrees of success, to feel at ease with the fluctuations of their privileged liberal existence. Living an apartment in Manhattan with Jake and Coco, their adopted Chinese daughter, they pride themselves on diversity. Liz can’t quite believe her new life and Richard's career resurgence as an executive.

Largely happy if not harried, Liz seeks to elicit less than abstracted kisses from her husband. She's also overwhelmed by her messy home and how much there is to do and how little she wants to do it. For his part, Richard is vaguely irritated by his wife’s sloppy housekeeping and her insistence that he should make more of an effort to deal with the fallout from Daisy's video.

As this couple skirts around the edges of a new sort of legal quagmire, Jake’s actions force Liz and Richard to confront their marriage in a fragile environment. Like shards of glass, the façade of the Bergamots' life threatens to disintegrate around them, the family blindsided by the instantaneous judgment of their insular community. Ultimately, Jake must confront the sheer inevitability of his own downfall; from the disgusted look on his teacher's face to the way everyone at school gapes, his disgrace becomes “like a porthole in his family’s side."

Liz still believes that it all might blow over while dealing with her own midlife challenges. Getting stoned at Coco’s school play may not be the best way of coping, just as Richard’s running a million laps before heading uptown to his office only reinforces his irritating sense of self-involvement. Even Liz’s late-night exploration of hardcore online pornography smacks of self-indulgence as she seeks to understand the façade of Jake’s daily life.

Although these upper-West Side dwellers might as well live in a different universe, their issues are distinctive, from overachieving husbands to agitated mothers consumed by their childrens’ art and baking projects. While Schulman’s “shame factor” reverberates, Jake echoes most: the innocent victim in our new, ultra-sexualized, very public cyber world.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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