The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life

Photograph courtesy of Thinkstock Images.

This Beautiful Life is a story we’ve read before, in the news if not in a novel: 15-year-old Jake Bergamot is newly arrived at a competitive private school on the Upper East Side when a younger girl, hoping to be taken seriously as girlfriend material, emails him a video of herself stripping for the camera in her messy bedroom. “Her mouth filled the screen. Purple lip gloss, clear braces. ‘Still think I’m too young?’ She reached out for the little toy baseball bat and the next part was hard to watch, even if you knew it was coming.”

Shocked, confused, and unsure whether he finds the video sexy or horrifying, Jake forwards the email to his best friend for advice. Overnight, “Daisy Up At Bat” has made Gawker and the teens and families involved are devastated.

In 2011, this is a familiar tragedy. But most of us—mercifully—have not seen this story from the inside, and in Helen Schulman’s hands, the inside is worth seeing. Because this is a story about kids, sex, and the Internet, we expect it also to be a story about the irreconcilable generation gap between today’s teens and their parents. Instead, This Beautiful Life illuminates the common ground, or maybe more aptly, the common void between the generations. Shulman knows her characters well, and her prose comes alive when she’s rendering a character’s thorniest, most intimate moments. The adults in the novel predictably mourn the loss of their children’s innocence and privacy at the hands of modern technology, marveling at how different they had it. They conveniently ignore the same patterns among themselves and their peers. In their circles, news travels just as quickly, and even more cruelly, but without the help of instant messaging. 

Likewise, the teenagers seem unable to define and inhabit their rapidly evolving identities, and the parents trying to guide them seem no more enlightened. Jake struggles miserably with his masculinity both before and after the infamous email, and he’s crushed when he learns that the girl he really likes has pronounced him “unchivalrous” in the wake of the scandal. Liz and Richard are equally unmoored. Their marriage is dissolving because, to their surprise, they’ve become like all the other prep school parents they know: she an unsatisfied “former-something” and he a harried, emotionally-remote provider. Everyone feels trapped.

This Beautiful Life begins as a titillating, ripped-from-the-headlines beach read, but it ends as an emotionally wrenching social critique. This kind of inconsistency in tone might seem confusing, but, oddly, it works, because it lets the narrative sneak up on you in a way that is both thrilling and satisfying. To our surprise, this isn’t a story we know after all.