Book review: “This Beautiful Life,” by Helen Schulman
By Mary McGarry Morris,
It’s a brilliant beginning, turning the reader into a viewer, then a voyeur: “Her mouth filled the screen. Purple lip gloss, clear braces.” Giggling, 13-year-old Daisy is filming herself in the lava-lamp-lit privacy of her messy bedroom. Her seductive dance intensifies into an erotic striptease. She lifts up her skirt, “and the next part was hard to watch.”
Daisy e-mails the video clip to 15-year-old Jake Bergamot, a boy she’d “hooked up” with at an unsupervised party in her spectacular Riverdale home, where there’s plenty of booze and empty bedrooms. The brutal, painful fallout that results in this modern-day viral nightmare is all the more chilling because it is so easy. Because it can happen to anyone. The wrong moment, the impulsive message, one quick touch of a key — and even the most accomplished lives can come tumbling down. Jake and his parents are so skillfully rendered by Helen Schulman that “This Beautiful Life” is as much a bracing novel as a timely cautionary tale.
Liz and Richard Bergamot have struggled past their blue-collar beginnings. Educated at the finest schools and universities, they can provide their two children with lives they never had. Richard has been lured away from Cornell by Astor University in New York City. A devoted husband and father, he’s handsome and “allergic to failure.” Liz, like her husband, holds a PhD, but she’s quirky and never quite comfortable in her own skin. Missing their bucolic existence in Ithaca, she’s both conflicted and beguiled by the pleasures of their new sophisticated city life.
While their son, Jake, attends that fateful party at Daisy’s house, Liz takes her adopted 6-year-old daughter, Coco, to the Plaza Hotel for tea sandwiches with other private school mothers and daughters. The little girls frolic naked in the bubble-filled Jacuzzi, and “all this decadent beauty reminded Liz of the sprites at the Allee d’Eau, at Versailles, the wet, shiny, prepubescent girls flipping and flopping among the bubbles like baby seals, their mothers ringed around the bathroom sipping their champagne and wondering when exactly their own youth had abandoned them.”
It’s a good life, successful and stimulating, in spite of Liz’s uneasy liberal musings. But as long as Liz and Richard keep loving each other and being devoted, understanding parents who enjoy their kids, what could possibly go wrong?
After her sleepless night at the Plaza with Coco, Liz arrives home, looking awful and feeling worse. Jake is hung over and ashamed for going too far with Daisy, a younger girl he couldn’t stand. He’s hoping his mother “could read his mind and instantly forgive him, like she used to.” Instead, the ever-honest Liz admits to a hangover, then “shuffled off to her room to sleep it off.”
Needing a connection, Jake checks his computer and discovers Daisy’s e-mail. Shocked, he watches the video twice, not sure if it’s pornographic or even sexy. “It was like a hot potato. He had to fling it to someone else.” And so he does — to a friend, who instantly forwards it to two other friends. And on and on and on. By Monday, everyone at Wildwood, his exclusive private school, has seen it. News helicopters hover over the school. The New York Post prints a story. Jake’s shameful ostracism has begun. The headmaster calls Jake and his mother into his office. To their horror, he plays the video, forcing them to watch the humiliating ugliness with him. In no time, the video ends up on a popular Web site with millions of viewers.
Of course, we’ve all read stories about sexting in the news. Scandals involving adolescents sending explicit video clips of themselves have become a distressingly common symptom of the Internet age. Police and school administrators around the country are struggling to stamp out a practice that can lead to charges of possessing child pornography, hefty prison terms and shattered lives. Schulman has managed to capture this bizarre of-the-moment tragedy in a novel that remains deeply humane and sensitive.
Aghast at the high-tech witch hunt that ensues, Richard considers “the staggering consequence of a flick of his son’s index finger, the amazing irrevocable reach of his unleashed power — it was sort of stunning, really.” Expulsions, litigation and expensive lawyers follow. Richard’s credibility is compromised, his brilliant career in limbo, his decent son shunned and depressed, his wife reeling, wanting it all to end, so withdrawn that the beloved little girl she’d gone all the way to China for sits alone by the hour playing games on her mother’s computer.
“This Beautiful Life” is a powerful story of a good family in crisis. Schulman vividly portrays the circularity of events and the instantaneous connections of lives caught in a very real world wide web. How like the butterfly’s wings when the mere tap of a key can unleash storms of such unimaginable consequence.
Morris’s eighth novel, “Light From A Distant Star,” will be published in September.
THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE By Helen Schulman Harper. 222 pp. $24.99