Helen Schulman: This Beautiful Life

This is the second book in the New York Times’ Big City Book Club. You can read the discussion of the book as well as an interview with Helen Schulman here. You can read my review of the first book chosen by the book club, Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, here. The third book in the book club will be Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s which I fortunately have read recently.

Helen Schulman: This Beautiful Life (HarperCollins, 2011).

One of a parent’s worst nightmare is that your child does something that you can’t save them from. That they make some mistake that can’t be fixed no matter how you try. This is the situation for Richard and Liz when their 16-years old son Jake receives a sexually explicit video from a 13-years old girl, Daisy, he knows – and then forwards it to his best friend. The friend forwards it as well and soon the video is all over the internet and Jake is expelled from school.
Richard and Liz are living the good life. They are in New York, Richard makes a lot of money and Liz is a stay at home mom, taking care of Jack and especially his sister, 5 years old Coco, adopted from China. When Jake forwards the video, a ball starts rolling that’s almost impossible to stop. His parents fight to get him back in school and to ensure that his future isn’t ruined by that one click of a mouse. They do whatever it takes – and are willing to fight with every means they’ve got to get Jack back on track.
But the fight changes them and the whole situation causes Richard to have issues at work where he has the job of a lifetime, the job they moved to NY for. Their otherwise happy marriage comes under such pressure that cracks start to appear.
Coco is caught in the middle of this. Her parents’ focus on Jake leaves her somewhat unattended and exposes her to parts of life she is still to young to understand and deal with. I really liked Coco – but at the same time this precocious 5-years old girl who gets away with everything, feels a bit like a stereotype and not like a person. I feel like there are many young girls, especially (of course), adopted from China in books, tv series these day and they are all sort of the same character.
When I first heard of the subject of this book, I was really intrigued by it – unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The idea about a teenager who does one wrong thing on the internet and then have his life turned upside down, is so current and important. And how do we as parents protect our children from the dangers of the internet – not just what is out there, but what they themselves can do? Such mistakes can have such huge consequences that they can ruin lives – so easily.
Of course this is also a book about how to be a parent and whether you as a parent are tuned into your kids’ lives. I think it’s very important to talk with your children, to tell them about your day and to thereby encourage them to tell you about theirs. That being said, I think this book puts too much focus on single moments. Jack’s forwarding of the email is one moment and it has a huge impact, yes, but there’s another moment where Liz watches him sleep and when she thinks back at that moment later, it’s with a feeling of regret – she feels that if she had just woken him up and talked to him then and there, everything would have been better. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think parenting is about moments. Of course there will be bad moments and episodes and some of these will have huge effects but I don’t believe that you can fix a bad moment by having a good moment. The biggest parts of your time with your children should be good, loving and caring, nurturing. If that’s the case, you don’t need just one good moment to balance the bad moment out, to save them. They know they are loved and they trust you enough to come to you with your problems.
For most parts the book really flows easily and is a very quick read. But unfortunately it looses it’s momentum somewhat and never really delivers. I don’t expect it to give a solution to the problem it raises but the ending is not satisfying and it would have been nice to follow Daisy more closely so it made more sense why this one event has one set of consequences for her and another for Jake. It’s fascinating to dive into the gender issues and why we judge girls one way and boys another but maybe this book would have worked better if the author had actually really dived into this and maybe told the book from both Daisy’s and Jack’s point of views – instead all our focus and attention is on Jack and only once in a while does a character remember that Daisy is out there too and that she’s just a kid. I think it makes for a more interesting book to have Jack as main character if the other option had been Daisy as main. I think that kind of story of a girl doing something promiscuous has been told. That being said, I think the best solution would have been having both characters as mains.
The book is a fast read and it is a good read. But so much more could have come from this idea and I’m a bit disappointed that more didn’t come.
“It’s just that this beautiful life … I can’t manage it,” [Liz] whispers. “You worked so hard to build it, but I can’t manage it. And I don’t want it.” (quote from location 3391 – page 209)

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