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.