This Beautiful Life is both strikingly of the moment and just a bit behind the times. Its events take place in 2003, a time when many of us were starting to live online, but when the most common way to share over the internet was still via e-mail. A story in which the catalyst is a video that goes viral might play out a bit differently now, in the YouTube/Facebook era. Having said that, while the details place the novel in a very specific time and place, Helen Schulman has crafted a timeless, resonant story that dissects choices and their consequences, looking at one family's "beautiful life" at the instant it's on the verge of shattering.
Both Richard and Liz Bergamot have been strivers - Richard is the first in his family to graduate high school, let alone college and beyond, while Liz grew up in a single-parent home in the North Bronx. Together since graduate school, they have made choices in their marriage that define their roles and spheres within it. When Richard accepts a job leading the expansion of a major Manhattan university, that choice moves the family from small, bohemian-flavored Ithaca, New York to the Upper West Side and effectively back-burners Liz's career for the duration. Spaces are made for their children, Jake and Coco, at an elite private school. It's a new world for them all, and just as they're finding their way, it's all blown apart by a 13-year-old girl's bad choice to make an explicit video and e-mail it to a 15-year-old; the 15-year-old's bad choice to forward the e-mail; and the parents' difficult choices about how to handle the fallout.
While the novel is primarily event-driven, the hook resides in how the primary characters react to the events, and Schulman reveals this though the alternating perspectives of Liz, Jake, and Richard. It's interesting to view these characters though one another's eyes, and the author succeeded in making me feel sympathetic toward all of them; there are really neither heroes nor villains here, and the emotional charge and challenge of their situation feels authentic.
Another hook for me was Schulman's use of specific place references that I knew personally. I was part of the Cornell University community in Ithaca (as a grad-student spouse) for several years, and I recognized places that came up in Liz's reflections on the family's life there, but Ithaca's appearances in fiction don't really take me by surprise any more. I was surprised that Liz grew up in that middle-class housing project in the Bronx, Co-op City, however; my great-aunts lived there, and frequent visits made it part of the landscape of my childhood. I don't see it show up often in my reading, though.
This Beautiful Life got its hooks into me immediately, and I think it will stay with me for awhile - there's a lot to think about, and talk about, here.