Fic­tion

This Beau­ti­ful Life

Helen Schul­man
  • Review
October 31, 2011

This Beau­ti­ful Life is a ripped-from-the­head­lines saga of a fam­i­ly torn apart by a teen fol­ly: boy for­wards a sug­ges­tive video made for him by a girl. The result­ing expul­sion from school, threat of a legal case, and anguish for both the Jew­ish moth­er and non- Jew­ish father liv­ing in con­tem­po­rary Man­hat­tan leads to the mother’s ulti­mate rejec­tion of the beau­ti­ful life her hus­band has cre­at­ed for her. The nov­el uses the Internet’s abil­i­ty to broad­cast ado­les­cent fol­ly pub­licly to explore the issues of pub­lic and pri­vate and the spaces where con­tem­po­rary life is lived. 

Schulman’s saga begins when the fam­i­ly moves from bucol­ic Itha­ca in upstate New York to the excite­ment and dan­ger lurk­ing among the more sophis­ti­cat­ed denizens of Man­hat­tan. Some of the fun of the book is the over-the-top descrip­tions of the lifestyle this fam­i­ly is exposed to: sleep­overs at the Plaza hotel for kinder­gar­den­ers, par­ties with legal and non-legal stim­u­lants in a McMan­sion lin­ing the Hud­son in Riverdale. Schul­man gets all this descrip­tion of excess right, and her char­ac­ters’ reac­tions to their new cir­cum­stances. The con­trast between the smooth father at a meet­ing, able to nego­ti­ate the oppos­ing forces at a neigh­bor­hood gath­er­ing in Harlem to dis­cuss his Colum­bia-like uni­ver­si­ty appro­pri­at­ing the space for its new cam­pus, and the bewil­dered son and moth­er called to the headmaster’s office to view the for­ward­ed video, is a mas­ter­ful scene. 

There is much mem­o­rable writ­ing here from Schul­man, author of four pre­vi­ous nov­els and edi­tor of an anthol­o­gy on want­i­ng a child; how­ev­er, there is lit­tle con­tent that is overt­ly Jew­ish, beyond men­tion of the mother’s maid­en name, Cohen, and Co-op City Bronx ori­gins. A read­er want­i­ng a warn­ing about the haz­ards of the Inter­net — or a read­er who wants to encour­age a teen to use cau­tion in all things online — will find much to enjoy here.

Inter­view

Helen Schul­man is the author of four pre­vi­ous nov­els and a short sto­ry col­lec­tion. She teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at The New School in New York City.

Beth Kissilef: What is the task of a nov­el­ist today?
Helen Schul­man:
I can only talk about my task. I’m not pre­scrip­tive about oth­ers writ­ers’ work. Every­one has their own pas­sions and ideas. Man­i­festos about fic­tion are kind of sil­ly, I think, although they do draw a lot of atten­tion to them­selves, which is prob­a­bly why writ­ers some­times
write them. What I hoped to do in my last two books (A Day at the Beach and This Beau­ti­ful Life) was write about the way we live now.

BK: Why did you choose to write with Daisy [the char­ac­ter who sends the sug­ges­tive video] at the novel’s open­ing and clos­ing but nev­er in the mid­dle, only about how her actions impact oth­ers?
HS:
I want­ed to begin by cast­ing a spell over the sto­ry. And I hope the pro­logue turns the read­er into a voyeur of sorts — almost as if the read­er her­self were sent the video. This was some­thing I hit upon well into the first draft of writ­ing the book. I end­ed with Daisy because I think she hov­ers over the whole sto­ry, the mys­tery of who she is and who she may become, and I hope that her res­o­lu­tion sheds light on some of the ideas I was wrestling with through­out the book. I found her both resilient in terms of her life force and dev­as­tat­ing­ly sad.

BK: I want to ask about the char­ac­ter Liz as a moth­er — is she too involved or not enough?
HS:
I think she is both too involved and not involved enough. It is extreme­ly
dif­fi­cult to be a good par­ent. Life is very com­pli­cat­ed, made up of rain­bow shades of gray, and our inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions and con­flicts are what makes us human. Liz needs to both let go of her chil­dren and to hold on to them; it’s her tim­ing that is some­times off. I think she is a per­son who when faced with lousy choic­es makes worse ones. She loves her chil­dren with all her heart. In some ways, she is blind­ed by that love.

BK: What is going on with the women’s roles in this nov­el?
HS:
There is a phe­nom­e­non I have seen where there are many well-edu­cat­ed women, lawyers and Ph.D.’s and MBAs for exam­ple, who don’t work. They often don’t work for good, lov­ing parental rea­sons – they want to raise their chil­dren and their for­mer careers and their hus­bands’
present ones don’t allow for much flex­i­bil­i­ty. These women are smart and capa­ble, and I was inter­est­ed in the choic­es they made (because
they have choic­es) and what hap­pens when you take well-trained peo­ple out of the work­force. Where do their ener­gies go? How do they feel about them­selves? How val­ued are they? What hap­pens to women when their self-worth is wrapped up in the home and their appear­ance? What is the effect on the chil­dren that they raise? There is a crazy split in the cul­ture now where women are on the Supreme Court and yet also over­ly sex­u­al­ized, and at a very ear­ly age girls are taught that their sex­u­al­i­ty is a major source of power.

BK: The Jew­ish iden­ti­ties of Liz and Jake — how does it impact them?
HS: Liz is Jew­ish, and so are her chil­dren. Her hus­band is not. They have had a good mar­riage up until this point and they love each oth­er, but there is some ten­sion over their reli­gious dif­fer­ences, which adds anoth­er lay­er of com­plex­i­ty to their rela­tion­ship. I think mov­ing to New York City offers both a sense of relief and a new kind of self-recog­ni­tion for Jake as a Jew.

BK: Char­ac­ters who are will­ing to reveal them­selves online are Liz’s for­mer flame Feigen­baum and Daisy. What con­nects them?
HS: What is so fas­ci­nat­ing about the Inter­net is that we can reach out to almost any­one at almost any­time any­where in the world, yet we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly often for­get this same fact — that once sent or post­ed, our mes­sages, images, etc. can indeed then go to almost any­one, any­where, at any time. And at this point, there is no tak­ing them back. Adults and teenagers make the same mis­takes (look at Antho­ny Wein­er, for instance). We’ve been giv­en this mon­u­men­tal gift, this abil­i­ty to con­nect, and we don’t yet tru­ly under­stand its ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Polit­i­cal­ly, the Inter­net pro­vides excit­ing capa­bil­i­ties — look at how it helped to inspire the Arab Spring. But Twit­ter and Face­book also helped to per­pet­u­ate the Lon­don upris­ings. Some­how, I don’t think we real­ize ful­ly what hap­pens when we give up pri­va­cy and the abil­i­ty to wipe the slate clean. With the Inter­net, for­get­ting is over.

Helen Schul­man Pho­to: © Denise Bosco

Discussion Questions