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.
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