My recent post on the immortality of your online presence offered a consoling, even redemptive, view of the digital world. This Beautiful Life offers a searing look at the other side of that coin. And even though the conceit centers on the Web, the impact of events illuminates a web of fissures within one family and hints at a network of flaws that will inform the direction of our society.
The Bergamot family recently relocated to Manhattan from a comfortable life in Ithaca, New York. As the public face of Columbia University’s program to build a new campus in an area of urban blight, Richard capably dances the fine line between vision and community politics with delight. That leaves his wife Liz, with her Ph.D. in Art History and sporadic history of teaching as an adjunct at Cornell, managing their Upper West Side apartment and preparing for the move to a faculty home provided by the University. In other words, the slightly bored housewife is watching her professional dreams fading in the rear-view mirror, with little to occupy her but the endless cycle of dropping off and picking up her daughter at school.
And what a school it is. One of the perks of Richard’s position of power and prestige is that his children have a tuition-free guaranteed spot at Wildwood, a premier academy for the 1%. Jake, the fifteen-year old, is at the Upper School with bored, sophisticated, seemingly self-confident kids already immune to the ravages of the outer world but still struggling with the fears of adolescence. Coco, their six-year old Chinese adopted daughter, is at the Lower School, enjoying sleepovers at the Plaza Hotel, round-the-island birthday cruises, and other events created by wealthy and competitive moms for the City’s princesses.
Then Jake makes a mistake. Or rather he takes someone else’s mistake and compounds it. After a bored Saturday night spent trolling through the City for something to do, they wander up to a schoolmate’s party. The girl is in eighth grade, home alone in her family’s mansion (her parents are on Cyprus, dodging taxes), a place with lots of beer and bedrooms. A drunken Jake winds up making out with her, but pushes her away when his classmates mock him for robbing the cradle. When Jake wakes up hungover the next morning, he opens a message from the girl on his cell phone, and discovers that she’s filmed herself in an explicit video. Without thinking, he forwards it to a friend. And from there…you can imagine.
The ensuing scandal gets Jake and the guys who forwarded the video suspended from school. Richard is also invited to take a step back from his project–his name has been connected to the video, making him toxic for a project that requires a squeaky clean leader. Liz finds herself searching the Web, appalled and fascinated by the quantity and variety of porn she sees. And Coco is influenced in ways no one expects. Trapped in their small apartment, with no friends to support them, and advice bombarding them from every direction, the pressure builds until their underlying issues burst forth and the family’s defining moment looks like it’s going to be their dividing moment.
While the topic might be sensational, Schulman digs past the surface muck to the real heart of the story, which is a family’s response to the high profile screw-up by one of its members. Schulman leads the reader to think about parental involvement, the use and misuse of technology, and the early sexualization of both boys and girls, but doesn’t apportion blame–the mirror she holds up to us is enough to show us the fools whose knowledge will always exceed their wisdom.
Check the WRL catalog for This Beautiful Life