Tuesday, August 2, 2011

This Beautiful Life: A Novel by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life: A NovelThis Beautiful Life: A Novel by Helen Schulman

Goodreads: When the Bergamots move from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City, they’re not quite sure how they’ll adapt—or what to make of the strange new world of well-to-do Manhattan. Soon, though, Richard is consumed by his executive role at a large New York university, and Liz, who has traded in her academic career to oversee the lives of their children, is hectically ferrying young Coco around town.

Fifteen-year-old Jake is gratefully taken into the fold by a group of friends at Wildwood, an elite private school.

But the upper-class cocoon in which they have enveloped themselves is ripped apart when Jake wakes up one morning after an unchaperoned party and finds an email in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. Attached is a sexually explicit video she has made for him. Shocked, stunned, maybe a little proud, and scared—a jumble of adolescent emotion—he forwards the video to a friend, who then for-wards it to a friend. Within hours, it’s gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world.

The ensuing scandal threatens to shatter the Bergamots’ sense of security and identity, and, ultimately, their happiness. They are a good family faced with bad choices, and how they choose to react, individually and at one another’s behest, places everything they hold dear in jeopardy.

This Beautiful Life is a devastating exploration of the blurring boundaries of privacy and the fragility of self, a clear-eyed portrait of modern life that will have readers debating their assumptions about family, morality, and the sacrifices and choices we make in the name of love.

My take: I thought this would be like Therese Fowler's Exposure: Novel which I found voyeuristically captivating. Because, as I mentioned in my review, I know a boy who had a nearly identical experience. I have also been up close and personal as a family member had a similar experience. So I feel empathetic for the boy who does something stupid and seemingly harmless only to find himself handcuffed and charged with a serious sex crime and facing years of prison time.

This book is on a slightly different vein and covers a little different aspect.

Liz and Richard relocate to New York City from Ithaca for a job opportunity and to a place where their two children, Jake and Coco could have superior educational opportunities. They run in elitist circles and Liz feels like a fish out of water. Regardless, Liz and Coco attend an extravagant party that includes a sleepover while Jake has plans for a party someplace else.

Jake and his friends eventually land at the home of a 13 year old girl whose parents are out of town and she provides the booze and the extravagant house. She hooks onto Jake who makes out with her in a drunken haze. When pushed to take it upstairs to her bedroom, he realizes he's being an idiot and she's only a child (he is 2 years older at 15 and half) and he needs to get out of there. In frustration and reaction to his friends' pressure to sleep with her, he angrily tells her, "You're too young for me!" then gets the crud out Dodge.

The following morning Jake is greeted with an email with an attachment. Daisy, the 13 year old girl, dance provocatively on the video, flashes her breasts, flips up her skirt then does a sexual act too disgusting to detail and, I'll go ahead and admit that I didn't get it until page 151.

Jake, freaked out and not knowing what to do, forwards it to a friend for guidance. He tells two friends and they tell two friends and so on and so on and so on. In other words, it goes viral. Just in case you don't know, having pornographic images of any sort on your computer or cell phone or i-pod is illegal. Forwarding it to anybody at all is a criminal act of disseminating child pornography.

The story is about the fall-out and collateral damage. Each character is very well developed and their point of view different from one another. There is no question who is at the helm in the story when it's their head you're in.

Richard is a well accomplished do-gooder. He has a Ph.D. in some kind of organizing service projects. At the moment, he is in the most delicate of negotiations with a myriad of parties to further expand the university where he works. He has prepared astutely and has finally organized all interested parties to sit down for a discussion which is really his presentation. The truth is that Richard begins as one type of person and evolves into a different person with different goals. Did I see evolves? I mean devolves. This is a book about collateral damage.

Lizzie is the most interesting to me. Highly educated with a Ph.D. in art, she turned down a professorship at Harvard in order to support her husband's career and raise Jake and Coco. Coco is adopted from China although I didn't see the relevance to that aspect. She is in midlife and hitting all those midlife developmental milestones (which are different from their male counterparts of affairs with surgically enhanced women, orange tans and a sports car). She is questioning her worth as a person who piece meals her days with tasks that need to be done. She is highly neurotic and endearing to me for that personality trait alone. Okay, and the highly educated. Her job is trying to hold the family together and handling all of the crises that erupt while her powerful husband brings home the bacon.

Coco can only be described as spoiled and precocious. 6 years old, it is through her character we learn how the elite women of this social circle live and exist. How gossip begins and spreads, and how a mother can feel like an utter failure with depression issues.

Jake is a main character. He suffers right from the beginning. He is sickened by what nearly happened at Daisy's house then continues to suffer the consequences of being stupid. His character is heartbreaking as he internally struggles with how much he deserves to be punished. He is damaged forevermore and carries the guilt and shame. He is hated and admired at the school until he is kicked out.

There are other characters that are minor but the damage to their careers and futures are devastating and very well thought-out. Realistically speaking, this could happen.

In good conscience, I can not complete this review without warning of the extensive sexual content. Language is laden with sexual innuendo and/or description and not the sexual acts normally reserved for two people in love. Married sex is also discussed and much more comfortable for me but I can't even detail the different sexual acts and thoughts described without blushing.

This is not a book to be read by the prudish or squeamish. I am not ashamed to admit that I am both. The story concept is one I believe should be addressed. The author is masterful at giving a human face to not only the alleged perpetrator but also the alleged victim. She is also amazing at writing characters I can relate to.

On the other hand, I think I threw up just a little bit in mouth.

Language: Strong
Sex: Extreme
Violence: mild/moderate

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