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This Beautiful Life: A Novel

This Beautiful Life - Helen Schulman Once, the Bergamots were the darlings of the Manhattan jet set. Transplanted there by virtue of a job offer Richard Bergamot could not refuse, they packed up and left their happy, small town, suburban lifestyle for the fast pace of the city and a future of financial triumphs. Richard loved his new job. Liz loved her new found lifestyle of the “rich and famous”. She gave up her ambitions in favor of her husband’s achievements. Both have Ph.D’s. Both appear to be interested first, in the world of Botox and vacations, rather than their children. They live in Charles Murray’s bubble world of the established, mixing primarily with their own kind and moving in their own circle of comfort and prosperity.
Regarding the move, there is no evidence that the needs, or effect of the move on the children, were given much consideration. This move would provide them all with many creature comforts and advantages which would make the move worthwhile. The subtle side effects of this move on their behavior, after being uprooted and placed in a cauldron of anonymity, so different from the warmth and community of their old neighborhood is largely ignored. Everyone is too busy enjoying the affluence.
The Bergamots are currently living in a temporary apartment provided by the University that hired Richard, until the school’s new upscale residences are completed. Richard is senior executive vice chancellor of the Astor University of the City of New York. Richard’s ambition is to take a blighted area and turn it into a state of the art campus for the university, creating jobs and affordable housing at the same time. This sounds noble until you find out that Richard has helped the neighborhood become more blighted by buying the parking lot that used to service the area, refusing to renew leases among other things, thereby insuring its decline in order to help guarantee the project’s approval.
One evening, Liz takes Coco, their adopted Chinese daughter, to a clandestine, child’s birthday party, at the Plaza Hotel, where the mothers proceed to drink themselves into a stupor, and Coco proceeds to bounce from bed to bed for most of the night. Liz returns home exhausted and with a hangover. She neither notices the discomfort of her son Jake, from his previous night out, nor is she in any condition to help him even if she had acknowledged it. The book is a study in parents who, from the outside, appear to hover around their children, and yet, in reality, they neglect to pay much attention to the more salient aspects of parenting, like the teaching of values and ethics. Children learn from the example and often, perhaps unwittingly, the parental example is often shallow and mercenary because the parents are unaware of how closely they are being watched.
By and large, Richard is too busy climbing, placing one hand over the other on the ladder of success, and Liz is too busy trying to fit in and be cool, like the other mothers, enjoying the high life, going to the best restaurants, the newest shows, enjoying the latest fashions, to realize when things subtly start to go awry. The lifestyle they enjoy seems extremely superficial. However, the children are provided with every advantage, even if they are somewhat neglected when it comes to moral development, and the finer nuances of their occasional behavioral aberrations, which gave evidence to their somewhat troubled adjustment, often went unnoticed. Coco, only 6 years old, is a typically, if not also overactive, mischievous young child. Jake is 15, and a victim of his puberty and his hormones, which when coupled with the change in his environment, confuse him and offer him no ideal opportunities for explanations or means to address his concerns. The friends he has chosen appear to be very different from the boy Jake used to be, a boy who would prefer to be back in his old neighborhood, riding his bike and experiencing the wind blowing through his hair as he rode downhill with his eyes closed, rather than standing on a corner smoking weed and drinking beer, illegally. He is essentially a good boy, a naïve young man, trying to make his way in the world of the teenager, fraught with all the dangers that face them, chief among them being the internet and the lack of restraint often exhibited by kids because they simply don’t know better.
On the evening that his dad works late and his mom parties, Jake also looks for entertainment. He is being trusted to travel on his own and come home on his own since the parents are otherwise going to be occupied. When the party he intended to attend with his friends is canceled, he crashes another, and after the experience there, his world, forever after, is changed. He meets Daisy there and they sort of hook up. He rejects her, in the end, and in the morning he receives a very lewd, sexually explicit video from her. Instead of deleting it, in his shock and with immature naïveté and confusion, he foolishly forwards it to a friend, hoping for some input. He has no one to go to for guidance, unfortunately, or this would not have happened. Of course, the video goes viral, and it is the beginning of the end for Jake, his family, some of his friends, and most of all, for Daisy.
How will this tragedy be resolved? Where do you place the blame? Is it Daisy’s fault since she, with premeditation, sent the video which has now been classified as pornography? Is it Jake’s, although he never asked for it and was shocked by it, because he sent it onward? The repercussions are monumental. Liz falls into an emotional decline. Richard loses his position and has to take a forced leave. Jake is suspended. Daisy is shamed but signing autographs. She has become famous. Jake is somewhere between a murderer and a martyr on the scale of guilt. Is this tragedy the fault of society, parenting, affluence, arrogance? Will the victims learn from this experience or continue to make the same mistakes, pursuing the wrong, often selfish goals?
This is not a wonderful piece of literature but this book will give rise to many discussions on cyber-bullying, arrogance, the internet, political correctness, diversity, “blending” of cultures, class advantages or disadvantages, the lack of rules and proper discipline in modern homes, the effects of neglect and lack of parental involvement, the dangers wrought by too much money and the dangers wrought by the lack of it.
I would give this novel three stars except for the fact that I think it is more important as a tool for discussion than for scholarship, so it warrants four. If it leads to meaningful conversation and solutions, to current parenting issues and juvenile behavior or lack thereof, with or without the involvement of cyberspace, it will be more worthwhile than its value as literature.
***As a postscript, I am wondering if people reject this book because they do not want to hear the message or face their own complicity in shaping events like this? We have just come off a very contentious election in which the President, Vice President and his administration conducted an angry and not always truthful campaign, ignoring the dishonest and horrible emotional effect of the messages sent about their opponents, and yet we restored them to office. We can surely say that both sides did some of the same but studies will and have shown, that the left was far more favored by the media and was far more negative and damaging than the right in their behavior. Why do we approve of this behavior and honor it? Do the means justify any ends?