I first published this review in August 2011. Now that the paperback edition is available, I’m sharing it again and giving a copy away. The subject matter covered in This Beautiful Life is incredibly relevant, especially for parents whose children are starting to use, or are actively engaging social media. But more than that, it’s an important reflection on self-identity and family dynamics. I expect we’ll see more and more discourse on this. It’s definitely worth the read.
To win a copy of the book, simply leave your name in the comments below. I’ll do the draw on Friday, February 17 at 6 p.m. EST.
Over the last year I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction, memoirs, parenting guides, and spiritual guides. They’ve helped to give some shape to my life, kept me digging deep, and moving forward. But every once in a while I’ve needed a break, which I’ve found in a good dose of fiction to lose myself in. I call them inhalers, the kind of books you pick up and just can’t put down until the last page, until you reach some form of closure and deep satisfaction. I lose myself in words, words that draw distinct and incredible edges around fictional worlds that can be engaging and entertaining, sometimes shocking, often moving.
On Monday I endured a really long travel day that began before 7 a.m. and didn’t finally end until I collapsed in my hotel room after 8 p.m. The comedy of delays was made bearable only by the lack of children in tow, and because I had ample time to crack the cover on an inhaler, This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman. And while it was very a much a page turner that I practically devoured, it also had a plot line that hit close to home and has left me feeling concern and deep unease.
This Beautiful Life is the story of the Bergamots, who have moved from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City. This upper-class family’s life is ripped apart when Jake, the 15-year-old son, wakes up one morning after an unchaperoned party and finds a sexually explicit email in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. In his youthful naivete, he forwards the video to a friend, who then for-wards it to a friend and within hours, it’s gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world. What follows is an exploration of the boundaries of privacy and the definition of self and a critical commentary of modern life ripe with critical, and sometimes satirical, observations about family, morality, and the choices we make as parents.
While the story was entertaining, gripping, and culturally important, I was struck by the lack of depth to the plot. There is so much Schulman could have done to more fully develop the characters and explore the larger social issues that defined them that I was left somewhat disappointed. My gut reaction is that this book was rushed to print to be the first to initiate discussion of the issues explored rather than to fully develop this controversial topic.
That aside, I did find the characters compelling and her descriptors rich with imagery. The story itself raised interesting and important awareness of the future struggles I am sure to face when my own boys approach adolescence, things that we’ve all struggled with: self-worth, belonging, understanding and communicating emotions and feelings and helping them navigate their new independence and find their way in the world.
If you are looking for an emotional read with true-to-life and compelling characters, that requires you to keep turning the pages while obliging a deeper consideration of your own parenting style and relationship modelling, then I recommend this book. Those of you who, like me, have young children will be glad for the early eye-opener, and those with children closer to or deep into adolescence will seriously reflect on the broader consequences of your child’s use of technology and how you parent and influence their personal lives.
(Full disclosure: Harper Collins sent me a review copy of This Beautiful Life)