This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman
This novel answers the question “how far can an inappropriately shared video go on the internet?” Take a group of teenagers partying in a house with absent parents, add alcohol, a spurned 8th grade girl, and a smart phone, and you’ll quickly find out.
The Bergamot family is adjusting to their new life in Manhattan. Father Richard is an administrator for an urban university looking to open a new campus in one of the last undeveloped areas of the city. Mother Liz is adjusting to her new life as a stay-at-home mom, after giving up her academic career, at least temporarily, to be the trailing spouse to her husband’s career. 15-year-old Jake is making friends at his exclusive private school, and enjoying the beginnings of independent young adulthood, as he explores New York City by subway and on foot. Six-year-old Coco, adopted from China, enjoys Eloise-style birthday parties at the Plaza with her rich peers, and is happiest when she’s the center of attention. In short, it’s a privileged, mostly content life, until Jake, after a drunken make-out session with a girl too young for him, gets an explicit video emailed to him. From there on out, all the privilege in the world can’t help the family with their problems.
Schulman does a great job of describing the feeling of entitlement shared by this family, while still making them likable. Jake isn’t blameless in the situation, but we understand the adolescent confusion that got him there. And it’s also to Schulman’s credit that Daisy, the maker and subject of the video, comes across neither as a hapless victim nor a manipulative lowlife. If anyone oversimplifies the situation, it’s Liz, and we have the feeling that even that is only temporary. Here, Jake and his parents read the tabloid coverage:
Jake’s mom came up behind him then, when Dad was studying the Page Six item. She put her hands on Jake’s shoulders and gave them a rub.
No girl will ever touch me like this now, Jake thought.
“See, your friends are all rallying around you, Jakey,” Mom said. “They know you’re just an innocent victim.”
Right, Mom! he wanted to shout. I am the innocent victim who sent an X-rated video of Daisy Cavanaugh all around the goddamned fucking planet.
But he didn’t.
He just said, “Wow.” He said it kind of softly. In one week, ten days, he and Daisy had become sort of celebrities. Now they were forever linked and also forever pitted against each other, just like divorcing movie stars.
Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie.
None of that was boring.
author photo: Denise Bosco