The moral of This Beautiful Life (Harper Collins, 240 pages, $24.99) is the same as that of The Odyssey: If you have a good life in Ithaca, think twice before leaving it behind. Also, watch out for the sirens. Plug your ears with wax, cover your eyes, break your laptop, do whatever it takes to avoid looking at the provocative video sent to you via email. Especially if its star is an underage girl.
In Helen Schulman’s fifth novel, the Ithaca in question is Ithaca, N.Y., where the Bergamot family once lived happily, employed by Cornell University, and which is rich in suburban luxuries like parking, trees and good public schools. But hubris and ambition bring the Bergamots to Manhattan, where Richard Bergamot takes a high-powered job as vice chancellor at “Astor University,” a place that seems to share the same geographical coordinates as Columbia University, as well as its politics. Liz Bergamot, a sometime art historian and professor, leaves her part-time career in Ithaca to become a full-time mother to her two children, 15-year-old Jake and 5-year-old Coco, who is adopted from China.
At the book’s start, it’s the spring of 2003, and the Bergamots are closing in on their first year in Manhattan. For the most part, they have adjusted well: Richard excels at his job, and Jake and Coco are thriving at their new school, a prestigious private academy where they have free admission, thanks to their father’s position. Liz, however, is uneasy in her new role as a stay-at-home-mom and feels out of place among the other “formers”: women who identify themselves as former editors, lawyers, bankers, agents—whatever profession they left behind. Liz’s situation is not, on the surface, that different from her life in Ithaca, but Manhattan is giving her class anxiety: her new cohort is wealthy, while she’s originally from a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx and has misgivings about raising her children in a privileged, fast-paced milieu.
Her fears are, as it turns out, well founded. One night, when Liz is helping chaperone Coco’s sleepover at the Plaza Hotel, Jake is invited to party in Riverdale, where he dons beer goggles and makes out with the party’s host, a precocious eighth grader named Daisy. The next morning, he’s ashamed of his behavior, and his embarrassment is deepened when he opens his email to find that Daisy has sent him a video of herself, performing a graphic striptease. In one impulsive moment, he forwards the video “like a hot potato” to his friend, who forwards it to his friend, and so on, until everyone at his school—not to mention his parents, their friends and hundreds of thousands of strangers—have seen it. Because the video is an email forward, Jake’s name is attached to it, and he is immediately suspended from school. But that’s just the beginning of his troubles.
What follows is part legal drama, part domestic tearjerker, as the Bergamots try to salvage their reputation and keep their family together. They hire a lawyer with “eyes … that emit no light” to take on Jake’s school and defend him against Daisy’s family. The lawyer advises them to leak their version of the story to “some kid reporter … someone ruthless and eager and hunting for blood.” With this directive in mind, the Bergamots contact—who else?—The New York Observer. When The Observer article (“Prep School Pornathon”) comes out, the Bergamots are shocked by the media blitz that follows. The story begins to be tracked not only by tabloids like the New York Post, but by websites like Gawker.com (in 2003, a new addition to the online scene) and UrbanBaby.com as well. Soon, kids are wearing “Free Jake Bergamot” T-shirts. Jake is overwhelmed by his sudden change in status: “In one week, ten days, he and Daisy had become sort of celebrities. Now they were forever linked and pitted against each other, just like divorcing movie stars.”
Unsurprisingly, Liz discovers that she doesn’t have much support among her new friends, who are more interested in dishing dirt about Daisy and her parents than they are in comforting her. Richard also finds that his professional network is thin, and he is forced to take a leave of absence at a crucial moment in his job. Jake, meanwhile, becomes more popular at his school, but he is so consumed with guilt that he can’t enjoy it. Even little Coco feels the strain and acts out at school, dancing lewdly in front of her kindergarten classmates. As the pressure on the Bergamot family mounts, the compromises of Liz and Richard’s marriage, tolerable in a time of peace, become untenable. Liz resents the sacrifices she’s made for her husband’s career, while Richard believes that he has been forced to shoulder too much responsibility and is irritated when his wife becomes depressed. Before Daisy’s video, the Bergamots’ biggest marital problem was difficulty conceiving a second child, but they were able to overcome that with adoption; there is no equivalent solution for Internet defamation.
It doesn’t spoil anything to say that things don’t end well. Like a Jodi Picoult novel, This Beautiful Life is one of those topical horror stories that people read as much to inflame their anxieties as to work through them. In another writer’s hands, it might come out as a cautionary tale, but Ms. Schulman is careful not to paint anyone as villain or victim. Jake is portrayed as a confused, but ultimately well-meaning kid, Liz as an anxious, but ultimately thoughtful mother and Richard as an egotistical, but ultimately responsible husband. Daisy is also portrayed sympathetically, if vaguely. The only glimpses we get into her life occur at the beginning of the novel, when she makes the video, and at the end, when she’s working as an intern at Goldman Sachs—an ambiguous fate, if ever there was one.
Throughout This Beautiful Life, there is the nagging feeling that Daisy and the Bergamots would have been just fine in 1993, but in 2003 they are doomed, caught in the cross hairs of the Internet. This is likely Ms. Schulman’s point, but it’s hard to feel sorry for characters who are undone by technology rather than by any real moral failing or fatal flaw. At times, This Beautiful Life even felt dated—it’s unclear why Ms. Schulman chose to set a novel about sexually explicit material gone viral in a time before YouTube and smartphones, not to mention TwitPics. Then again, it’s worth remembering that one of the most popular video memes of 2003 was “Star Wars Kid,” a video in which an awkward high school boy practices Jedi moves with a golf ball retriever. It was one of the first cases of a video made for private consumption becoming unintentionally public, when the boy’s classmates leaked it as a prank. There was a lawsuit—the boy and his family sued for emotional distress, and won—but nevertheless, today the whole scenario seems pretty innocent.
This Beautiful Life captures some of that innocence, especially when it details Richard Bergamot’s initial reaction to Daisy’s striptease: “For all the video’s dismal raunch, its tawdriness, for all its sexual immaturity and unknowingness, there is something about the way this girl has revealed herself, the way that she has offered herself, that is brave and powerful and potent and ridiculous and self-immolating and completely nuts. It speaks to him. Is he crazy? He feels crazier in this moment than he has ever felt in his life.”
The bewilderment in this passage is recognizable, even in 2011, when we are all a lot more blasé about the things we see online. Ms. Schulman’s ability to unearth such a heartfelt reaction is noteworthy, especially in a novel that seems, at first blush, to be a story about the way the Internet is stripping us of our humanity. Although This Beautiful Life will probably not remain relevant for very many years, for now it’s a good reminder of the complicated ways in which the Internet seeps into our private lives and changes them, for better and for worse.