Book review: This beautiful life

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.

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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)

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16 thoughts on “Book review: This beautiful life

  1. Lindsey says:

    This is next in my stack and I can’t wait to crack it! xo

  2. Kelly says:

    The book sounds like good summer reading in that it doesn’t require you to dig deep and examine your core values or beliefs. That can be a huge relief sometimes. With that said, it reminds me of the time I read Bridget Jones’s Diary right after reading The God of Small Things. I couldn’t stomach the drivel after reading something so awesome, so I stopped reading it. I couldn’t enjoy what half the world was fawning over. Sometimes you need a breather between the soul-searching and the fluff.

    • Christine says:

      That is absolutely true Kelly. And actually I have been on a bit of a breather, haven’t even picked up a book for two weeks until this one. I needed to slow the reading down for a bit, was feeling existential overload.

    • Just chiming in to say that The God of Small Things is one of those powerful, devastating books that has stayed with me for years after reading it. A must read!

      I actually adored Bridget Jones’s Diary but totally understand Kelly’s point – the contrast between the two would be really off-putting, I imagine.

  3. Stacia says:

    Inhalers … I love that term! I’m adding this one to my list for my next Kindle feeding. =>

    PS: How are you enjoying Atlanta??

  4. I find that some authors can really pick “hot topics” and make them work (Jodi Picoult is notoriously good at this) but sometimes I resent the topic being used if it’s just rushed to print. Your review of this book has intrigued me though. I love a good “inhaler”!

  5. “Inhalers.” I love that! I’m going to steal it. I have that book on my to-read list, also. Sad it felt a little rushed, but it sounds worthwhile anyways.

  6. I, too, love the term “inhalers”. It helps me to divide the literature that helps me grow and expand from that I inhale. Love it.

    Yeah, I’ve not read the book, but been following the discussions. I have an 18 year old daughter and a 14 year old son. Believe me, this topic is one mothers think about!

  7. As the fellow bloggers have said, I also love the term “inhalers.” Great way to describe a good book. Will put this one on my list.

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful review, Christine. What I thought was cool about this book was the way it explores the marriage between Jake’s parents after the fated incident and how it gets you inside the heads of these two married people. Jake’s mom is obviously struggling with self esteem issues, having given up her work to move to the city, and I thought it was really interesting to watch that manifest in the marriage. As a young, unmarried woman, this struck a cord with me, and made me think about what I want my life to look like in the future. I’m glad you liked the book and that it got you through an otherwise crummy travel day!

  9. Count me in as another friend who plans to steal “inhalers” and who has this book on her night table, ready to read when I’m finished with my current stack. Thanks for giving me a sneak peek. xo

  10. Cathy says:

    As a parent of a teen who has been on the receiving end of a sexually explicit photo via text from another teen, perhaps I should give this book a gander. I was surprised – when you said the family ripped apart when the teen received this explicit email and it went viral I thought for sure the book was going to lead to how the child got into legal trouble. I know that there can be serious consequences for even receiving such stuff as it can be considered child pornography. Convicted of that, the person would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Crazy but true. I explained all this to my teen and hopefully put fear as a motivator to do the right thing.

  11. Petula says:

    This sounds like a good read. Love your review … very honest and compelling.

  12. pamela says:

    Just popped in to say I miss you! Hope you are enjoying your break. xoxo

  13. […] looking for more of a book report-y kind of book review, read my friend Christine’s review, here. I nodded my head through her every […]

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