Book Review: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

this-beautiful-life-by-helen-schulmanI rarely pick up books based on reviews I read in magazines. I usually rely on word of mouth, Twitter, a trip through a book store, or my wife pushing a book in front of me and saying “You should read this.” But a few weeks ago, as I was sitting in a doctor’s office (again), waiting (again), I opened a magazine, and flipped to its section of book reviews. At the top of its list, was Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life. The magazine said it was one of the 7 Books [which would] Rock [my] World. Well, everyone needs to have their world rocked once in a while, so I took a picture of the review (so I wouldn’t forget), and then picked the book up at the library the next time I was there.

This Beautiful Life is the story of a New York City family, living in the private-school bubble of elite society circa 2003. Liz, the mother, is now a stay-at-home mom, filling her day with the minutiae of daily life, caring for her 5 year old adopted daughter, Coco, and her 16 year old son, Jake. Richard, the father, is wrapped up in his work, heading up the negotiations to build a new university in Harlem. Jake is a good kid, trapped in that age where weekend nights are only good for wandering the streets, trying to figure out which party has the greenest grass.

Everything is going fine until Jake, who is under the influence at the time, rejects the advances of Daisy—a girl who is too far young for him—who will not take no for an answer. After the rejection, Daisy sends Jake a special video of herself that Jake, in a mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life, forwards to one of his friends. While the video spreads, Jake’s life, and the lives of everyone in the family unravels.

I picked this book up because it sounded like a gritty YA story. After reading the short, and disturbing, first chapter, I had very high hopes for this book. The book is told from three perspectives: Liz (the mother’s), Jake’s, and Richard’s (the father). Each one was written with a slightly different narration style. Liz’s chapters rambled—clearly the author’s way of telling us that Liz was wrapped up in all the little things: gossip, hearsay, presenting the right image, and the insignificant aspects of life. Jake’s chapters, in the beginning at least, wandered a bit too as he tried to figure out what he wanted. Richard’s chapters were filled with business related concerns—how could he save his boy’s college chances? How could he keep the family living like they did now that their name was tarnished?

It took about 70 pages to get to the incident that caused the whole mess. By then, I’d become a bit frustrated with the book, mainly due to the long chapter in Liz’s perspective which overflowed with long sentences and multiple commas per line.. Had it not been a short book (220 pages in hardback), I might have given up on it. The pace picked up a bit after the incident, especially in the Jake chapters, which were far more readable than Liz’s blathering, and Richard’s cold, calculating worries.

I understand that a lot of people really like this book. The story isn’t bad. But had it been done as a YA book, told from Jake’s and Daisy’s perspectives, this could have been so much more interesting. I didn’t like Liz, and I didn’t like Richard. Frankly, they both annoyed the crap out of me. At one point, I wanted Liz to throw herself out the window of their building, just to end her whining. I felt sorry for Jake (for both making the mistake, and for having the parents he did). Daisy’s perspective, in this style, was glossed over with a couple of pages at the end that could have been left off, and no one would have noticed.

After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like YA because of the pace, and books that intentionally defer pace in favor of prose, don’t appeal to me quite as much. Perhaps that makes me less of a true aficionado of literature, but I’ve already said that before.

I had really high hopes for this book. I guess it just wasn’t what I hoped it would be.

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