Out this week in paperback, Helen Schulman’s “This Beautiful Life” is a highly contemporary tale of woe. The novel looks at how a family manages and fails to manage in the grip of a thoroughly distressing sticky wicket brought on by the ills of the exponential Internet and exacerbated by the ills of the family in question. The book is a peek at how individuals operate in society and within a family given ills all around — given life in this novel being something of a mess, it turns out, in spite of the luck, privilege, and striving of the characters.
The novel centers around the Bergamots, who have moved from a comfortable life in a college town to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in order for Richard Bergamot, the husband and dad, to pursue an important leadership role at a university. He is handsome, tall, in control of his image, his strategy, and himself. He makes the money, he’s proud of his mastery. He’s the golden boy turned golden man, but not from a privileged background: His is a bootstraps story.
Richard has his family in tow, including Jake, the cute, complex sophomore in high school, and Coco, the sassy, exuberant kindergartner. Both children are attending Wildwood, a super-fancy private school. And then there’s Liz, Richard’s wife, the children’s mother. Liz is warm, emotive, neurotic, smart, pretty, self-conscious. She’s ambivalent about her choice, perhaps not seeing it entirely as a choice, to be a full-time stay-at-home mother rather than seriously pursue a career in art history, the subject in which she holds a Ph.D. She’s a native New Yorker, but not from the privileged, private-school world she finds herself plunged into with the move to Manhattan.
Played out with these personalities along with a host of other deftly drawn contemporary characters, the scenario of the book is this: Jake, the 15-year-old sophomore, attends an unchaperoned party and makes out with the hostess, Daisy, who is an eighth grader at his school, but he rejects her in a tide of emotion, and the experience goes no further. The next day Jake opens an e-mail message from Daisy that contains a sexually explicit video she made of herself for him using the camera on her computer. (The video is described in full in the first two pages of the book; it’s unbelievable but plausible, if that makes sense.)
“This Beautiful Life”
Harper Perennial, $13.99
“Was this pornography? Was it even sexy? He thought it was sexy, but he wasn’t sure. He felt hard and he felt soft. It was like a hot potato. He had to fling it to someone else.”
Jake forwards the video to his best friend. He thinks better of it almost immediately, but almost immediately is too late in a digital world. His friend forwards the video, and so on and so on. The video goes viral and the Bergamot family is engulfed in scandal.
For some readers, the scenario of “This Beautiful Life” might seem forced, more a closed container for the issues it raises than a platform to support issues of human nature and human struggle as they develop within the narrative; the scenario might seem too much of a hook, too transparent a vehicle for issue-raising. Yet still the novel is engaging for the questions it poses: Who is to blame for the video Daisy makes? Her wealthy, neglectful parents? A society that sexualizes girls? Is Jake a cad for forwarding the e-mail? Or just a 15-year-old with poor impulse control? What about all the people who hit “forward” after him? Who is accountable? Where did Jake’s parents go wrong? Did they go wrong? Who, in such a situation, should be apologizing to whom?
As the book unfolds, Jake becomes crippled with confusion about his role as a boy and future man; his relationship to power and gender dynamics is on the line. There are hints of his not landing on his feet. Ms. Schulman writes of Jake seeing Daisy for the first time at school following the scandal:
“He was the creator of her torment and he knew it. At that moment, inside him the twin ruling deities of the rest of his life, a giddy recognition of his own powers and a crushing sense of shame, were born. Both paled before the desire to save himself.”
Meanwhile, Jake’s mother, essentially, can’t deal. She gets sucked into the constant on switch of the Internet as she monitors the scandal, then branches off into the darker regions of the Web trying to formulate a context for the video made for and sent to her son. She begins to lose sight of how to play her role as a mother; she begins to neglect her duties.
Jake’s father proceeds to do damage control and attempts to manage the course of the scandal while becoming increasingly frustrated with his wife’s incapacity to take charge of family affairs. Life in the Bergamot family is looking bad, permeated by neglect and isolation. Unsalvageable? Ms. Schulman writes of Richard arriving home to the apartment late from having drinks:
“From the sound of things, sometime in the evening, like worn-out boxers, Lizzie and the kids had each retreated to their various corners of the apartment — Coco to the TV in her room, Jake most likely stretched out on the floor by his bed listening to his iPod, and here in their bedroom, once again, Lizzie heedlessly entering her laptop’s dark Oz. Since when do they each need a media highball? Richard thinks. Since when do they need something to take the edge off?”
We read for the possibility of redemption and we read for the painful allure of witnessing, in slow motion, a train derail and threaten to totally wreck. Can this family survive the pressure of this experience? Would the marriage have been headed for trouble sometime down the line anyway?
Ms. Schulman’s writing is clear, full of facility, often it sings with a sort of joy in using the English language. “This Beautiful Life” is fun to read for its accurate, stylish rendering of the Bergamots’ particular brand of educated privilege and the currents within it. Although the contemporary, realistic mode mainly dwells in accuracy and attention to detail — the construction of a mirror — Ms. Schulman’s writing is also infused with a smart, sly humor and an understanding of her characters’ interiors that lends compassion and perspective at times.
Gender, sexuality, character, and the construction of family in contemporary life get a workout with Ms. Schulman’s tap tap tapping on the keys.
Helen Schulman’s previous novels include “A Day at the Beach.” She is a regular visitor to Amagansett, where her mother has a house.
Evan Harris, the author of “The Quit,” lives in East Hampton with her husband and two sons.