Review: ‘This Beautiful Life’ by Helen Schulman

this beautifulcover

Oh man, this was pretty hard to read – not because it’s badly written, but because of the subject matter. It’s basically the story of how people’s behaviour becomes ugly when the crap hits the fan – in this case a family/social crisis (teenage son receive sex video from a younger student; he forwards it on to his friends, who in turn forward it on; mayhem and shaming of various parties ensues).

I admired elements of this book – Shulman’s ability to articulate the deep, often unconscious self-interest that motivates people’s hurtful behaviour is compelling and left me unsettled and uncomfortable. There were also some lovely descriptions of Central Park and the Upper East Side – made me want to visit NYC again.

There was a sense though that this book had been designed around a ‘theme’ (the internet, sex scandal, contemporary woes, etc.) and so the characters and situations they fell into sometimes felt a bit 2D, like stock material. I felt like the story was always verging on getting to crux of how complicated the situation really was, in terms of things like the sexual agency of underage girls and boys, parents’ role in affecting their kids’ lives, issues of consent – but the story never quite rolled over into the truly murky territory. In the end I ended up basically hating half the characters (especially Richard, the teen boy’s father) which may have been intentional – but I feel like some more depth may have helped.

I think the main reason for this – which was my main problem with the book – was that the girl who actually made the sex video never gets to give her perspective on the situation (well, she sort of does very briefly toward the end, but only in token way). She gets spoken about a lot; we hear a lot about other people’s perspectives of her (did she ask for it? was it her fault? is she the victim? are her parents neglecting her?) and while all this may have been designed to expose just how much girls are never actually asked their opinions on their own bodies, the book also never asked her about her own opinion. So it kind of reinforced the very problem it raised. That said, the story did seem to intentionally leave the readers with the hanging question, ‘but what about Daisy’? (Daisy being the girl). Which I guess it good. And the story will stay with me, because if nothing else, it just shows how selfish and self-preserving people are when the stakes are high.

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