Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This Beautiful Life

While some mothers may adopt a French, laissez-faire attitude, or  relinquish their worries to a guardian angel, for many of us, worry is a constant. When you have teenagers, the worry-load increases, your worries worsen, and center around dating, drugs and alcohol, driving, and other potential dangers. And with technology that allows us to capture and record nearly everything at the touch of a key, the Internet and cell phones pose new (or newish) dangers, especially for teenagers (or anyone who doesn't consider the consequences of their actions), such as explicit photos, videos, and "sexting", which can be shared far too easily, and can be incredibly damaging (to people of any age).  As the mother of two teenage girls, when I decided to read This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman, I expected that it would increase my anxiety level, but I also thought that this novel, a modern story set in New York in 2003, sounded real, "relatable", and thought-provoking.  I also had another reason for choosing this book, which I'll mention in my upcoming interview with this author.

Published in 2011, This Beautiful Life is the story of a "perfect" American family, parents Richard and Liz, fifteen-year-old Jake, and six-year-old Coco (an adorable, sassy Chinese girl), told from multiple points of view.  Recently relocated from Ithaca, New York to New York City, they enjoy a high standard of living and "privileged" lifestyle on one income, and are content yet expectant.  Richard, perfect-looking and energetic, is flourishing in his career at the city university, and Liz, who has a Ph.D. but has given up her career aspirations, at least temporarily, to take care of the kids, are concerned and involved parents. Jake and Coco attend special schools and are invited to exclusive events, including, unfortunately as it turns out, parties.  Their lives are drastically changed in an instant, as a result of an email from an eighth-grade girl Jake met at a party, Daisy Cavanaugh. When Jake impulsively forwards the sexually explicit video sent to him of and by Daisy to a friend, who then forwards it to others, it quickly goes "viral".

"It was all over the country, maybe the world, even.  So fast.  Just like that.  Forward and Send. It was kind of incredible how fast it went.  Faster than fire.  Practically the speed of sound or even light."
~This Beautiful Life, Helen Schulman

As a result of this video,the Bergamot family is thrust into a very uncomfortable spotlight and a legal battle,  in a provocative story that forces you to think about the gravity of many contemporary issues, including the influence, downside, and dangers of advanced technology, and of the early sexualization of girls.

Although it was painful for me to read this story at times, it was difficult precisely because of Helen Schulman's talents as a writer.  In This Beautiful Life, whose premise is sadly too believable and realistic, her characters spring to life, real, flawed, and unforgettable. As parents, the Bergamots are not perfect--Liz gets stoned occasionally before school meetings, and Richard seems  self-absorbed--but they are caring people trying to do their best with their children, although there are factors outside of their control.  Jake is also a very real character, an "ordinary" teenage boy with a crush on an attractive, unavailable girl, Audrey. He struggles with numerous things and is shell-shocked by this event, which has totally spiralled out of control and now dominates his life (and that of his parents).  Daisy is greatly affected by everything, too, naturally, but she's able to cope in a way that allows her to move forward, eventually.  I read this pithy yet richly-detailed book quickly and anxiously; it seized my complete attention from the first shocking chapter until the conclusion (with  no dull spots in-between).  And while I can't say that I "enjoyed" it,  I did feel the impact of a potent story that I'll continue to think about for a long time.

Special thanks to Trish from TLC for sending me a copy of This Beautiful Life.  For other reviews of the book, please visit the other stops on TLC's This Beautiful Life book blog tour.  Please stay tuned for my upcoming interview with author Helen Schulman.


  1. I had this book on my wish list some time ago, and think this is actually the first review I've read. It seems like a good story, but a tough one as well for parents. Nice review.

  2. This does sound like a story ripped from the headlines. I love books like this - they show both sides of the story and give you a lot to think about. Excellent review!

  3. Ooh I think this book is definitely one I would like to read. It sounds like a really shocking story. But one that needs to be read.

  4. Sounds like this will be one roller coaster of a read. Great review, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  5. Fascinating that the mother has a known vice -- smoking marijuana -- despite all the blessings she enjoys with her family. Maybe that serves as the flaw that leads to the tragedy? This is a very timely story, it should do well.

  6. I think you liked this one a lot more than I did. I was a little turned off by all the characters and found them unlikable. I also thought that the decisions that Liz and Richard made regarding the video and it's repercussions were odd and sometimes angering. It definitely was a book that made me think about the parenting of teenagers, but it wasn't really a book that I enjoyed.

  7. I liked this although I think maybe a little less than you. I do think the writing was beautiful. My biggest thing was I couldn't really make an emotional connection to anyone. Still I did enjoy the book.

  8. Oh, I am so glad I don't have any teens anymore. They are all grown up with teens and twenty somethings of their own. Today, with all the distractions all around the young ones, I really do feel sorry for the parents trying to do right by their children, but as the story showed, one little mistake, and their world is turned upside down. Nice Review.

  9. This kind of story makes me fear my son's teen years!

  10. Wonderful review Suko! This sounds like something that would make me nervous, since I have a teen and a tween of my own, but like a book that needs to be read.
    I look forward to your interview with the author.

  11. It's hard to say that you've "enjoyed" a book like this (since who wants to imagine being in this situation?!) but the topic is very relevant and it sounds like the author did a great job with it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts for the tour!

  12. I think that early sexualization of girls ai a really big problem ! E few days ago a French Minister (a woman !) wrote a law to struggle against it. I hope the Parliament 'll vote it.

  13. I've had this book on my radar but reading your review convince me to read it! Thanks Suko :)

  14. The best kind of story -- one that's real and makes you think about it long after you put it down. This one has the added benefit of hitting close to home since you also have teenagers.

  15. Yet again another wonderful review and interview. Thank you Suko!


  16. With my daughter close to the teens, I think this book would scare me! Sounds like it covers some important issues though and does it well.

  17. This topic is becoming increasingly more popular because it is so prevailant in today's times. Too many bullies and unhappy people who put others at risk due to their own insecurity and a need of expression of their dark side. They never think about how the other might feel; what the consequences might be. I'm glad more laws are being put in place to protect those whose reputations are toyed with. It is particularly harmful when the victim is a teenager and the repurcussions can and do affect the entire family unit.

    I'm not sure I will read this book, but I'm glad you brought the topic to the attention of your readers. Well done, Suko!


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