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Pickle Me This

August 14, 2011

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life was a curious read from the start for me, because the life never seemed remotely beautiful. Liz Bergamot is miserable in the new life she’s been delivered to after her family relocates from Ithaca to New York City in order for her husband Richard to continue on a career path to glory. Though the new life is entrancing in turns– as the book begins, she’s chaperoning her daughter to a birthday party in a  suite at the Plaza Hotel. But she regrets giving up her career, she laments her teenage son’s distance, her husband’s becoming a stranger, all she seems to do is run errands, and she keeps getting stoned in the bathroom, blowing smoke out the window so  nobody knows.

So it’s a house of cards, yes, that comes crashing, but I sort of thought such a house was supposed to have the illusion of stability. Nevertheless, when Liz’s teenage son Jake receives a pornographic video from Daisy, a young schoolmate, forwards it to his friends, and it goes viral, every crack in the foundation becomes startlingly clear. Liz’s social exclusion is exacerbated, Jake is thrown out of school and becomes depressed, Richard’s job is threatened, and six-year-old Coco is lost in the shuffle and begins to act out in disturbing ways.

That the novel is told from the perspective of Liz, Richard and Jake only underlines the distance between each them– we can see that they are scarcely known to one another at all. Jake’s voice is less successfully executed than the others– Schulman has made him precocious, but his preoccupations seemed more the author’s than his own, and I don’t think most teenage boys deliver lines like, “Goddamn it, I’m sorry! But you’re just way too young.” The novel’s other flaw is that far too much is spelled out for us: “Richard does not even genuinely know himself.” Or just in case we don’t get the Daisy/glass house/careless people reference, Jake is reading The Great Gatsby at school.

Of course, Daisy is not Daisy, and here is where the novel gets interesting (and curious). Just who are the careless people here? A family like the Bergamots with the money and clout to make such problems go away? Parents like Daisy’s who deliver their daughter material goods in lieu of love? Kids in general? How has the internet affected the old adage that kids will be kids? That boys will be boys? What does it mean when you have a teenage son watching porn online, and a six year old daughter who is already learning that she is sexual? Schulman touches on the erotic edges of parental love, the hypocrisy of parents condemning young people’s sexuality, and she blurs boundaries in thought-provoking places.

There is no moral to This Beautiful Life, except time marches forward, people move on, and these things go away, or they almost do. Daisy is the blank space at the centre of the story and we don’t enter her consciousness until the very end, when she is grown and nearly moved, but there is an aching sadness at her core that Schulman can’t even begin to address, and that silence is utterly effective. The rest of the novel is cacophonous, a  tangled narrative knot at times, but it’s intriguing, provocative, and, like all good fiction, raises more questions than answers.

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