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Teens, Sex And Tech Tear A 'Beautiful Life' Apart

I've been on a roll this summer reading and reviewing good novels about family crises — Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang. But, this latest domestic drama is one I recommend with a big caveat — especially if you happen to be a parent: Make sure you start Helen Schulman's new novel, This Beautiful Life, on a Friday night, so that when you find yourself compelled to stay up all hours reading it, you can take the rest of the weekend, not only to recover, but to think long and hard about the advantages for your kids of home schooling; cloistered convents, kibbutzes, monasteries and ashrams; or, perhaps, a semester abroad program in Antarctica.

You think I jest, but This Beautiful Life is one scary story, made more so by Schulman's great gifts as a close — and often funny — observer of upper-class social customs. Here's the situation: The Bergamot family moves from idyllic Ithaca to New York City when the dad, Richard, accepts a high-level administrative position at a Columbia-type university. Mom, Liz, has a Ph.D. in art history, but she has put her own fuzzy career ambitions on hold to raise son Jake, who's now 15, and daughter Coco, 6. The Bergamots find themselves plunked into the world of elite private schools, which include kindergarten sleepovers at The Plaza Hotel and birthday-party chartered cruises around Manhattan. In the contemporary comedy-of-manners tradition of a novel like Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It, Schulman, through Liz's alienated perspective, dissects the various cliques standing outside Coco's elementary school at pickup time. Here's a sampling:

Helen Schulman's previous novels include <em>A Day at the Beach</em> and <em>P.S.</em>
Denise Bosco /
Helen Schulman's previous novels include A Day at the Beach and P.S.

Fraught with tension as that female gauntlet may be, the consequences of a social misstep prove to be much more dire in Jake's teenaged world. At an unchaperoned house party one weekend, Jake attracts the attentions of a lust-struck eighth-grade girl. He rebuffs her, sort-of, but, undeterred, she sends him a homemade sexually explicit video later that night. Jake freaks out when he sees the video in the privacy of his room and, out of a mixture of fright and sexual braggadocio, he forwards the girl's email to a guy friend, who then sends it on to his friends. Schulman describes the burgeoning virtual disaster this way:

Within weeks, the flourishing future that the Bergamot family envisioned for itself has withered — all because of a few impulsive adolescent finger clicks on the computer.

What sets This Beautiful Life apart from, say, your average Lifetime Movie of the Week domestic drama is not only Shulman's closely observed depictions of the Bergamot family's collapse, but also her smart dramatization of how powerless we all are before the mighty, privacy-dissolving force of the Internet. At the climax of the novel, a distressed Liz cries to her husband about their children, "I don't know how to protect them. The genie's out of the bottle. It's in the air."

That last line sounds like it could have come out of a 1950s horror movie. Indeed, as wry and entertaining as Shulman's social observations are, it's the totally convincing nightmare aspect of her novel that will keep parental readers up at night, wondering how on earth to pull the drawbridges up and shutter the windows against this most potent invisible home invader.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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