In January, I was invited to participate in TLC Book Tour‘s book tour for Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life, which I had wanted to read for a while. Today is my date to publish my review; to read other reviews of this book, check out the TLC Book Tour site.
This Beautiful Life is about the Bergamot family, recent transplants to New York City from idyllic Ithaca. Richard is a high ranking officer at a fictional university (a thinly veiled Columbia) in the city, his wife is Lizzie (a SAHM), and their kids are 15 year-old Jake and 6 year-old Coco, adopted from China. The kids attend a prestigious private school, and Lizzie is adjusting to life in the city and all of its accompanying pressures. When the book opens, it’s a weekend, and Jake is attending a party in Riverdale with his friends. He meets a younger girl at the party and ends up getting physically involved with her. The next morning, she sends him a sexually explicit video. (Yes, she’s 14!). Jake forwards it to his best friend, who forwards it to two of his friends, and within hours it is all over the Internet. Jake is suspended, the girl’s parents threaten to sue, and the Bergamot family is thrown into upheaval on all fronts.
I enjoyed Schulman’s depiction of life in Manhattan and the detail with which she described the Bergamots’ interaction with each other and the other parents, school officials, etc. I also thought that her analysis of the Bergamots’ marriage, and how it was strained after the video incident, was very realistic. Lizzie and Richard are flawed, to be sure, but both sympathetic for different reasons. Richard, a self-made success, is driven to the point of ignoring what his family wants and needs. Lizzie is struggling with her identity as a stay-at-home mom who gave up her academic career to support her husband. And Jake is a typical teenager trying to find his way in a new school, unsure of where he stands and his place in the complicated ecosystem of high school. They each respond to the crisis in different ways, often careening in directions away from each other and testing their bonds as a family.
Schulman’s writing is natural and eloquent, and This Beautiful Life is a quick read. I was surprised to see a lot of mediocre reviews of this book – I enjoyed it quite a bit. My main complaint is about the ending: it seemed sudden and tacked on. Schulman cast several years into the future and gave a glimpse of where the Bergamots were at that point, which was sort of depressing and at the same time a little too skeletal for me. I wanted to know more.
I alternated listened to This Beautiful Life on audio with reading the paperback. The audio was fine, although the narration was a little too slow. I preferred the paperback because I could read it more quickly and get more into the story.
I recommend This Beautiful Life for people who enjoy contemporary domestic fiction, especially books that focus on parent-child relationships. Thanks to TLC and Harper Perennial for including me on this book tour!