Review: Fiction: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
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Imagine that with a single click on a keyboard you could unknowingly destroy your life and the lives of others. It's shockingly easy to do. The ubiquity of the internet, email and social networking makes such a single heedless act all too possible.
Hardly a week passes without news of someone being turned down for a job because of inappropriate pictures on Facebook or comments on Twitter. As the public and private become ever more intermeshed, cyberspace provides a lasting record of our mistakes. Add sex into the mix and the stakes just get higher. Add youth and experimentation, and the result can be catastrophic.
Vanity Fair writer Helen Schulman's fifth novel addresses this most modern phenomenon. This Beautiful Life reveals the horrific consequences unleashed when 15-year-old Jake Bergamot forwards a sexually explicit email he has received from an underage girl.
Richard and Lizzie Bergamot have recently uprooted their family and moved from a college town to the Upper West Side in New York. They had loved their previous life; but ambitious, driven Richard, the first in his family to go to university, was offered a fabulous job that he wouldn't refuse.
Although Lizzie taught a little during their previous existence, now she is a stay-at-home mother devoted to Jake and his adopted six-year-old sister Coco. She seems almost detached from her new life as she struggles to come to terms with her career sacrifice.
Jake and Coco are attending Wildwood Upper and Lower schools; the former campus is in Riverdale, an area north of Manhattan but one that attracts many spoilt, party-loving young Manhattanites. Bubbly Coco is already a social success, while Jake still struggles to find his place.
On the night that Liz and Coco are invited to a swanky mother-daughter slumber party in the Plaza Hotel, Jake goes to an unsupervised party in Daisy Cavanaugh's luxurious home. He gets drunk and gets off with Daisy but, infatuated with another girl, ultimately rejects the 13-year-old.
Disoriented, he stumbles home to a hungover, oblivious Liz and an email from Daisy, who is determined to show in the most graphic way that she's old enough for them to have sex. He twice watches the video she has sent him, uncertain if it's pornographic or even sexy. "It was like a hot potato. He had to fling it to someone else."
And with a single click, he forwards the email to his friend, who does the same. Within minutes, the video goes viral and it seems that all the Bergamots' accomplishments count for nothing as their world crashes around them.
Schulman doesn't shy away from portraying the brutal fallout from Jake's impulsive action in this skilfully rendered cautionary tale. The New York-based mother of two questions just how much we can protect our children in a world where boundaries we don't understand are constantly being pushed.
Money and privilege couldn't shield the Bergamots from their nightmare, and her chilling conclusion is that these days it could happen to anyone, to any family.
The ironically titled This Beautiful Life demands our attention immediately with its striking opening pages describing Daisy's erotic striptease and making the reader complicit in what happens next.
It is a riveting tale, illustrating the fragility of the familial ties that bind us. It is a novel with lasting consequences; after reading it, you'll hesitate before forwarding all but the most innocuous emails.