Friday, January 27, 2012

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010) 222 pages

I recently met a woman who is raising her teenage son on her own; he's a good looking, smart kid who gets a lot of female attention. Naively, I was a little bit surprised to hear that her concern as a mother was overly aggressive girls who send him provocative texts, images and messages. I have always worried about protecting my teenage daughter from various nefarious males (young and old) but never considered what teenage boys were up against. This book made me pause a bit - and think about the whole young female as the potential victim of males perspective.

Our story starts in New York and I am easily seduced by almost any story set in New York no matter which social strata it portrays.This is a weakness, admittedly, in choosing fiction. It sometimes leads me astray.

I often apply what I call my Holden Caulfield test to reading fiction (who is, by the way, my favourite fictional New York hero from Catcher in the Rye): my literary antennae starts vibrating uncontrollably when faced with phony characters - poorly executed, insincere sounding, paper thin mannequins ... thus my initial displeasure with this book. I felt deflated by the quality of the writing and my tepid dislike of the main characters. But that position was somewhat undermined by some surprising twists in the story.

Although attracted to the novel's premise as the Internet is a big bogeyman for parents of teens - Jake, a teenage boy gets embroiled in a huge scandal after forwarding a provocative video e-mail sent to him by a thirteen year old girl - I ended up disappointed with this novel. But ... I had to concede it did take me places I had not expected to go. There is also another intriguing subplot where Jake's mother Liz begins to surreptitiously cyber-stalk/follow an old flame on his blog that I wish had been expanded upon.

Liz is caught betwixt and between the wealthy WASPS and JAPS (her terms) who populate her kids' private schools and of whom she seems to have a growing fear, and her role as the adoring mother of the very young Coco and Jake, the hapless teenager who gets into this mess. I might be more sensitive to her plight if she did not seem so obviously ensnared in what some might callously call her "white girl problems" despite her working class roots.

Her main complaints before this genuinely serious family crisis seem to be a simmering resentment that her Ph.D. has not been fully utilized; the fact that her ambitious husband Richard, a senior official at a fictitious university, seems too alarmingly perfect even for her; and, although she adores her two kids, Jake and Coco, but seems bored and unfulfilled with her life choices.

She's bright, she's bored, she's affluent. She's also ... annoying. Her only affirmation as a person appears to be locking eyes with a raccoon during her daily run around Central Park whom she feels is telepathically transmitting the thought that: "We are a pair of outlaws living in an alien land."

The nasty video sent to Jake by thirteen year old Daisy, who was determined to get his attention, has gone viral but it has been traced back to Jake by school authorities. Liz's directive to Richard once Jake is called to the carpet for his offense at the private school he attends: "I want you to be an asshole." Was this, or was this not, a stupid act (albeit the boy is young and inexperienced) and who should be accountable for it? Should his life be destroyed for it? No, but he should be held accountable.

However, once I have my mind set about this and feel that Schulman is leaning too heavily in favor of the beleaguered boy and his family, I encounter this passage. Richard, Jake's father, is considering the aftermath of Jake's act. He ponders how his father would handle the situation, how his father handled Richard:
Richard and Lizzie and the girl's parents, all the other parents at school - they are both too close to their children and too far away from the ground. They are too accomplished. They have accumulated too much. They expect too much. They demand too much. They even love their kids too much. This love is crippling in its way.
This is the first hint you get as a reader that perhaps the lifestyle of this family is over-privileged and solipsistic, that their problems are self-inflicted wounds, as traumatic as they seem. Perhaps the author is as alarmed by their privileged lifestyle as we the readers are.

Schulman does captures the anxieties of an aspiring Manhattanite who doesn't quite fit into her
Helen Schulman
exalted upper class environment. Liz and her family moved to New York from Ithaca - she goes from a quiet, contented life as an academic who teaches the occasional class and wife of a Cornell university official, to the slightly bored Manhattan housewife ferrying the kids to their sports activities, their exclusive schools and having private birthday parties at the historic Plaza for one of Coco's friends who is, by the way, under ten (okay, here I will admit that I am secretly jealous of the whole Plaza thing). Ithaca becomes a sort of golden era for the family - simpler, less complicated, more comforting than big bad Manhattan with all its temptations.

These are essentially good people - decent, thoughtful, intelligent - why am I indifferent to them? Why don't I believe in them and empathize with them? Their prosperity and personal problems repel me. Surely, I think, that can't be the author's intent? But there is a method to her madness ... eventually Liz can't tolerate this environment and its pressures either.

Jake is particularly weakly written, no boy would notice his beloved Audrey's nails or the beauty of the line of the jaw of one's rival. A woman might, a boy would not. No heterosexual teenage boy that I know of would call another boy "babe" even ironically. Jake seems weak and insipid. I am sure this was not the author's intent.

The plot goes into a wobbly direction for me when Richard finally surreptitiously views the video and feels not repulsion (or perhaps more disturbingly arousal) but a grudging sense that the girl has offered something frank and innocent and liberating to Jake. I can't quite wrap my head around this. I can't imagine a parent thinking this. A teenager, maybe, but an adult, no.

There is an awkwardness in the writing. The descriptions are odd. Eyes so blue it appears "almost as if there were holes in her head and he was seeing the sky behind her." Liz waits for Jake after therapy "Like he was a little pet goat."

But this novel also goes to surprising places ... mother Liz gets hooked on on-line porn? She shadows her former boyfriend/Teaching Assistant on-line, cataloguing his every move, surreptitiously surfing on-line at night and going to some unexpected and frightening sites. She impersonates a literary agent to entice the man, an aspiring writer, with a fake e-mail and effusive praise. That, I admit, I was not expecting. It lightly underscores how easily Jake, as a teenager, was taken in and falls afoul of the e-mail scandal. If it can happen to a responsible mother, of course it can happen to a teenager. I wish that Schulman had developed this subplot more.

This Internet incident speaks of a serious issue about youth, technology and privacy and Schulman attempts to be profound throwing in a few The Great Gatsby quotes (Jake happens to be reading this book at school at the time and it also features a rich, spoiled character named Daisy) and some semi-serious remarks about the the plight of the young teenage male in today's technologically invasive America. A character in the novel muses how all that is private has now become public and all girls may soon face Daisy's fate. But they are throwaway lines placed in the mouth of a despised egghead whom no one likes at school. These observations won't, I fear, save the book ... it's just not that well-written. Schulman tries hard to see it (and write it) from Jake's perspective.

When I am ready to throw the towel in on this book ... it surprises me again. The family is dissolving, husband and wife are going in different directions and must make important decisions about remaining together and supporting Jake. Jake will not necessarily weather this episode well and, perhaps, Daisy will. Who would have predicted that?

1 comment:

Christine said...

I enjoyed this book but didn't much like the characters. I can do that I think, afterall I also somewhat enjoyed The Slap.