No matter how well-intentioned we are - and the couple in this novel, the Bergamots do mean well -- modern life has fresh ways of making things go awry for couples and families. I wound up caring so much about each of them, vulnerable and strong in different ways and think you will too. What happens when a very in-love couple moves with their two children --an active, adopted six year old from China and a 15 year old sensitie son Jake -- from comfortable Ithaca into New York City - for the man's enticing new job?
Even though the cover description sounded like the story could be poignant, and it is, Schulman's subtle, deft writing pulled me in from page one. This family of fully fleshed out characters, happy, enjoying life, can be hit by one innocent mistake, and the reverberations affect them all. The events ring true in this richly detailed story where literally one move sets things in motion, yet there are foreshadowed moments. No part of this seem contrived, rather it seemed like something that could happen to many other middle-class, perhaps upwardly mobile couples. Thank goodness for long plane flights, said the woman on my left (lives in Manhattan) who began reading my book when I was done. I will look for Schulman's next books to read
on August 3, 2011
It was an interesting idea for a story: big, digital-age consequences of the kind of thing that in the past would have been easily forgotten or ignorable. The New York Times said it was a book that needed to be written. But when fifteen-year-old Jake upsets a precociously obnoxious thirteen-year-old girl and she responds in a stupid, self-desructive (though not very) and vicious way, a series of relatively unremarkable events ensues that allow Jake's mother and her clone-family to plough through tediously observed emotional tantrums that get rather dull rather quickly. Jake's dad, Richard, is driven by a wannabe-neurotic middle-aged woman's thought patterns and so is his son. Everything comes back to what she feels about things, as if she has imagined everyone else into existence.
This is the problem with the book - the characters don't convince you that they really exist. The school that is the backdrop to events, with its preening pompousness, rings fairly true although it would have been interesting to explore that angle more deeply: a school stands to lose a great deal from such an incident, and the cardboard cutout staff could have added some substance had they been given the chance.
Overall, this book is a disappointment. The characters lack depth, the story meanders nowhere and the surprise ending feels purposeless.
I kept waiting and waiting for "This Beautiful Life" to reach its peak. The story hinges on an event that is described within the first few pages of the book and there is very little suspense after that.
The family - Richard, Liz, Jake & Coco - described in this book just don't seem to react too much. Jake, after forwarding a pornographic video, is suspended from school. He stays home during his suspension along with his stay at home mother and his father, taking "family time". They hardly seem to speak of the incident, neither parent seems want to deal with the event & the consequences, and they seem to just be in a holding pattern for most of the book.
Liz, more than anyone, seems bogged down by everything both in and missing from her life. "It was heaven really to be alone in that cramped apartment. And yet, as she had felt almost every day since they'd moved in, when she came back from dropping Coco off at school, or yoga, or errands, or coffee, Liz took one look at her messy home and was overwhelmed by how much there was to do and how little she wanted to do it. Finding that first step into an amorphous day, a day without bones, was always the hardest."
I do like that phrase, though - "a day without bones".
Underneath the uncertain lethargy of most of the characters, there is a message about way the role of parents has changed in this modern world. "(Richard's dad)...didn't focus on him, he didn't coddle him, he didn't help him with his homework or take his emotional temperature three times a day or do any of the things Richard and Lizzie do now, along with eating and breathing, as a way of life. Dad loved his boys within reason. Dad's was a reasonable, conditional love, the condition being that Richard kept his nose clean, that he always did his best, that he conducted himself with honor."
But in general, the story just kind of meanders along, until finally, just near the end, something happens that slaps the family in the face and wakes them from their stupor.
I suppose what kept me at a distance in this book was description of the emotions the characters were feeling...we were told they felt things...but those feelings stayed firmly on the page & didn't spark any reaction on my part.
It seems as if the story of "This Beautiful Life" was almost over before it began.
My favorite kinds of books are those that focus on a family during a trying time that stresses their family dynamics. While it seems simplistic, this is a lot harder than it appears. Many authors find themselves stuck in a story with no way out and rely on cliches or unrealistic endings. True authors place their characters in emotional crisis and watch them work their way out. This is the tactic that Helen Schulman takes in her new novel "This Beautiful Life".
Lizzie is a happy housewife of two children living in New York City in 2003. She holds a PhD in art history and yearns to return her family to Ithaca, New York where they lived before coming to NYC. However, her husband Richard was offered a job that he simply could not refuse which cause the family to be uprooted. They seem to be living an idyllic life until her son, Jake, is caught in the middle of a sex scandal. Suddenly all of their lives are turned upside down as Lizzie begins to question her role as an effective parent and stay at home mom. Richard takes on the notion that he must do anything to save his family, while Jake is guilt-ridden and confused. Together, they try to overcome this event and continue on as a family. Unfortunately, some situations put even the most stable family at risk.
This plot has certainly be done before, most recently by Anita Shreve in her novel "Testimony". It is for this reason that I wanted to read Schulman's book as I was interested in her take on such a traumatic event. I have to say that in just about 200 pages, she outdoes on previous novels written on the topic. Her characters are dynamic, every changing, and real. The setting is the perfect backdrop for such an event and the constant yearning that the characters have to return to their previous life in upstate New York is almost palatable. The dichotomy between the two "kinds" of New York is extremely interesting and well developed in the novel.
Though the book is physically slim, it packs in quite a punch. Ever family member is given time to be heard and understood by the reader. The third person narrative gives the audience a front row view of the story while allowing the reader to remain objective. It is clear that Schulman constructed the novel this way to prove that there is no winner in situations such as this. Overall, this is a fantastic read that I recommend to all. It shows the lows that people can hit without even knowing and the repercussions that can ripple for decades.
In "This Beautiful Life," Helen Schulman has created a disturbing portrait of the Bergamot family; each member's descent into personal turmoil; the inevitable disintegration of Richard and Liz's marriage; and the self-induced destruction of their son Jake. Schulman vividly exposes the shallow nature of the three primary characters and their interpersonal relationships.
Each of the Bergamot's concern for protecting the family's own world - its "beautiful life" - is outweighed only by each individual family member's greater concern for themselves. Their attitude is highlighted through scenarios set in the environment of private school social life and parental competition; business meetings; and by their reaction to the impact of their son Jake's actions on others.
Jake, the teenage son whose thoughtless action precipitates the issues addressed by the novel, never accepts real responsibility for what he has done. His mother Liz, who has a PhD, is portrayed, through much of the novel, as a less than self-confident woman; she has subsumed her dreams to further the advancement of her husband's career. As the "new" child's mother, she exists on the periphery of the mothers' group at her daughter's school. Richard Bergamot is a man who, having pulled himself up by his bootstraps, will allow nothing to stand in the way of his goals. Even Richard's seemingly altruistic redevelopment project is focused on what it can ultimately do to further his career. Only Coco, the Bergamot's adopted Chinese daughter is, as yet, unaffected by the family dynamics. This is a family who has a "beautiful life" and will not see it jeopardized by the actions of their own or of others.
Helen Schulman is an excellent writer; she has an obvious ability to tell a story. Her characterizations were strong and well-defined; her psychological insights added to the family dynamics contained within the book. The fact that this novel dealt realistically with the final events precipitated by the crisis, rather than sugar-coating the outcome was well done.
"This Beautiful Life" had the potential to become an outstanding novel, but, in my opinion, fell slightly short of that mark. The majority of the book deals with events taking place in 2003 and is "old news" in today's world of Facebook, U-Tube, and sexting. The final chapter takes place in a more contemporary time and briefly sums up the characters' lives after the events of 2003. Schulman's work would have benefited by her alternating between the events of 2003 and the present throughout the text. In doing so, she could have fleshed out the Bergamots' and others' lives, contrasting then and now, as they were affected by Jake's actions. This would have provided some additional depth to the characters and might have made them more sympathetic to the reader. The novel would have been longer, but the overall impact would have been worth the additional reading time.
I am rating it as a 4-star book. You will enjoy "This Beautiful Life" if you like to read well written novels about families in crisis.
on August 27, 2011
I was very disappointed in this book. The premise sounded interesting...the privileged teenaged son of a privileged couple receives a video via e-mail from a younger girl. The video is made to show the boy that she will do anything, sexually, for him. He does what any teen would do...he forwards it to his best friend...who forwards it...and within days it is all over the world. I DID like Jake, the teenaged son, the best of any of the characters. However, to me he was the only truly developed character. His anxiety about being new to his private school, his hopeless crush on a classmate, and his reaction to all the chaos that ensues after he forwards the video were the best parts of this book. The parents are not interesting, and certainly not credible. The mom, who has a PhD, still has to get high just to face picking up her little girl at school. The author spent a lot of words on the father...but he was never a realistic character to me. I don't know why the little girl, Coco, was even in the book. I was hoping to find a new author to enjoy. Sadly, I didn't.
THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE is definitely a contemporary story about parenting, scandal, and the interference of the world of technology into the privacy of our homes every day. While I enjoyed the story, I was not taken with the author's writing style in general. For me, her main characters felt flat, especially the teenage boy. While she wrote of his agony and guilt over his involvement in the scandal, the true heart and feelings of the boy just didn't come through. The ending felt as if the publisher called and gave the author a deadline, and the book was rushed to meet that date. It left me feeling that the story of the affected family remained untold. Overall, I just found the book unsatisfying and emotionally disjointed. The story line offered so many possibilities, but the reader just never gets to experience them.
on July 13, 2015
This book tackled a difficult subject but left a BIG void. The characters weren't even particularly likeable. It seemed as if the author wrote to a point and then didn't know how to end things. It seems to be another book destined to be a Lifetime movie.
In "This Beautiful Life", Helen Schulman presents Richard and Lizzie Bergamont and their children. This power couple is a demographer's --and urban marketer's-- dream: exactly two kids (one of each!) and plenty of money. Dad makes the money while Mom spends it, and fills her days with shuffling the kids to and from their New York City activities and the highbrow private school they attend. Richard is a driven executive intent on managing the image of his university employer as it makes a run on investment and expansion properties near Harlem while Lizzie apparently tries to reconcile the loss of her professional identity that followed their move to the city and her departure from academia.
Spinning in their orbit are Coco, the adopted kindergartner from China, and her 15-year old brother, Jake. Jake's eccentricity in this orbit as he moves deep into puberty is amplified by a series of increasingly regrettable decisions (by everybody except Coco) that drive the action in this story.
All the worries of contemporary parents are here. The book begins with a series of bad decisions by Jake and a wannabe girlfriend that span his choice of friends, drinking, drugs, adolescent sexual exploration and the loss of control of digital materials carelessly committed to cyberspace.
Note: while plot details are discussed below, there aren't any actual spoilers of an O. Henry type ending. I believe these details are important to discuss in the review. If your definition of spoiler is very broad, you might not want to continue.
The results reveal deep flaws in the three oldest members of the family. While Lizzie is an apparent central-casting helicopter mom, she ultimately ends up more concerned with the perceptions of the other moms at the kindergarten pick-up queue than the true state of her family. Richard is a control freak, who doesn't take a central role in the family's response until nearly halfway through the book. Instead of using the event as a teachable moment for his son to understand that choices have consequences, he lawyers up and goes on the attack (admittedly against at least one person who deserves it) while diving deeper into work and escaping to long runs in the city to shield himself from the pain of his family. The actions and responses of Jake (and of not-yet-his-girlfriend Daisy, whose brief encounters --first with Jake, and later with a video camera whose content is at the center of this storm) are perhaps the most understandable and forgivable of any in this book. This is mostly because of his youth. Adults will recognize the theme of "who hasn't done stupid things..." But his hovering parents prevent him from achieving any real introspection.
Make no mistake about this book: it's certainly a dark story. You'll encounter few fully likeable characters while moving towards its conclusion. And if the bad decisions that plague Lizzie, Richard and Jake in the course of this crisis don't break your heart outright, go to the epilogue. It's fair to say that while Jake's state won't come as a surprise, Daisy's will.
Well worth reading.
on December 29, 2011
Since this is not the first review I'll skip the plot summary. Helen Schulman's prose is heavy handed and overly descriptive. Clever tidbits that help a writer make a point with wit become the point. And thus taking the reader through pages after page of superficial witisisms. The characters are written from Liz's sarcastic perspective turning them cartoonish and unbelievable. The issue of stripping naked for a boy and make a video of it doesn't compare to the seriousness of cyber bulling that has lead in some cases to suicide. The issue is taken to a level that is hard to believe. And naming the destructive character daisy, and then quoting a passage of the great gatsby about daisy and Tom smashing things up is just too much.
Overall the book doesn't work because the writer has no respect for her characters and seems to have put little care into actually writing the story. On a minor note, she doesn't get the name of the Cuban restaurant in Harlem correctly, and her descriptions of Chelsea are terribly outdated.