This Beautiful Life, By Helen Schulman

In a digital age, shame is just one click away

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This Beautiful Life is a grenade of a novel: small, explosive and primed with a fizzling fuse of a premise. It's Manhattan in 2003. Jake Bergamot is wealthy, good-looking and 15-years-old.

He has enough neuroses to lend him depth (he's new both to New York and puberty), but nothing serious enough to cause him real pain.

Jake runs with a set of similarly gilded youths who smoke weed, check out chicks, and drift aimlessly up and down Park Avenue like American Pyschos-in-waiting. One evening Jake and two self-consciously named friends, Henry and James, wind up at a party. Jake hooks up with the Gatsbyesque Daisy, just 13-years-old, who is smitten. Jake, accused by another boy of seducing "jailbait", is furiously ashamed and Daisy is dismissed with a single line: "You're just way too young."

Daisy, humiliated but defiant, emails him a video of herself stripping to Beyonce's "Naughty Girl". "Still think I'm too young?" she taunts, before picking up a toy baseball bat. An unusually discreet Schulman lets your imagination do the rest. The by now perpetually confused Jake, both horrified and excited, forwards the video to Henry who forwards it to the entire planet.

The consequences that ripple outward from this act ensure that hardly anyone escapes unscathed. Schulman focuses, with claustrophobic intensity, on the Bergamots. Jake's father, Richard, is a successful, liberal and self-contained economics professor, whose working-class background has left a chip on his shoulder. Meanwhile, Jake's mother Liz is going to pieces. Finally there is Jake's six-year-old sister Coco, adopted from China and seemingly unaware of the chaos around her.

The story is told, alternately, from Richard's, Jake's and Liz's point of view, which eventually fuse into a single scene of bitter confrontation: a sort of Mexican stand-off of long-repressed mutual resentment. The catalyst is the moment Liz finds Coco aping Daisy's striptease for her kindergarten class.

This Beautiful Life is not a subtle novel. Schulman's frantic pace and way with a narrative hook reminded me as often of Dallas as of Bret Easton Ellis. Yet beneath the surface of this occasionally sensational but well constructed soap opera are hints of greater ambition. The Great Gatsby is one touchstone, The Odyssey another. The Bergamots hit the skids in New York having left an idyllic life in (wait for it) Ithaca, framing Jake as another modern-day Odysseus, with Daisy as Circe.

Oddly perhaps, This Beautiful Life reminded me most strongly of Joanna Hogg's recent movies, Unrelated and Archipelago. Both writers are especially good at weighing the lure of economic privilege against its hazards: Daisy is more than once described as "rich, spoiled and deprived". Arguably the novel's central tragedy is that she is viewed, not as a vulnerable child in need of protection, but as a public relations disaster in need of mitigation.