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This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman is the story of a family in crisis. Richard and Liz Bergamot have moved to New York City from Ithaca in anticipation of Richard’s professional advancement. They have two children—a 15-year-old son, Jake, and a 6-year-old daughter, Coco. One night, after attending a party, Jake receives an explicit email from a young girl. He forwards it to a friend, who forwards it to another friend, until the email and its attached video has gone viral. Yes, this is a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of story, which could have become a salacious or superficial novel focused entirely on the gritty details of plot. Instead, it becomes a beautiful character study of the members of this shell-shocked family.
Schulman sets this story in 2003, a time before social media would be so deeply entrenched in our daily routines. Jake doesn’t post this video to Facebook or YouTube; he simply forwards an email. He types in an email address and clicks forward. A teenager using email almost seems antiquated to us now, and I think this is the point. Jake seems so naïve, as does everyone else in this family. His action is a single card shifting in a house of cards. It is a seemingly small act that has enormous consequence.
Schulman artfully explores the ways in which Richard and Liz respond to the situation. Jake’s being in danger brings out sides of the Bergamots they have never before experienced. They participate, however indirectly, in smearing the young girl and her family, hire a powerful attorney, and retreat into the eerie silence of their home. Richard is put on a leave of absence from his high powered position, Liz sinks deeper into depression and withdraws, Jake is shattered and lost, and Coco is neglected to hours of television and DVDs. Schulman creates a palpable sense of guilt, blame, and depression that hovers over the household. Everyone feels guilty, but no one is willing to name their remorse.
This Beautiful Life raises questions about morality, bad decisions, empathy, and the ways we protect those we love most. Schulman puts the Bergamots under intense pressure and lets us observe them in a moment of truth. The novel deftly avoids melodrama, but evokes a sense of regret for failings which we cannot undo. If you enjoy non-didactic, issues-driven fiction, This Beautiful Life is worth checking out.