Monday, March 12, 2012

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman — 256 pgs

The Bergamots are a family headed for big trouble, very quickly. Though husband Richard has just landed a new job that will result in the family moving to new and improved digs, at the moment they are living the American dream in a cramped apartment in New York. Mother Liz is curiously disaffected by the bad behavior and social recalcitrance of her adopted Chinese daughter Coco, who is only 5, but her 15 year old son Jake is the obvious apple of her eye. When Jake attends a party that leads to a very underage girl sending him an inappropriate video, the Bergamot’s slide into the abyss comes rapidly and at a high cost to everyone in the family. Though Jake is your average teen boy, the video shocks him and he makes a very unwise choice in handling this sensitive issue. Meanwhile, Liz is trying to maintain an equilibrium for her family and is badly failing, causing Richard to take things into his own hands, which may not be for the best. When push finally comes to shove and the family is reduced to guilt, recrimination and self doubt, it’s up to Liz and Richard to put them all back together again. However, the cost of doing this might propel them into opposite sides of the ring, and in trying to hold their family together, they may unwittingly tear it apart. In this frank and unapologetic novel, Schulman captures the life of one family as it twists apart in slow motion emotional turmoil.

This book was the February selection for my book club, Books, Babes and Bordeaux. When I first settled in with this novel, I was sort of shocked and very bothered by its messages and the way that the author chose to portray them. Little did I know that each woman in the group would come away with much the same impression, and the meeting was definitely lively and full of spirit as we discussed the book and the ramifications it had upon us as we read. I think Sandy’s post sums it up very well. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, and for some reason, the whole book got my ire up. I listened to this book on audio, and its narrator, Hilary Huber, did an excellent job with it. Her vocal inflections were not only spot on but felt deliciously languid and imbued the audiobook with gravity.

First of all, I must admit that I disliked each and every character in this book and felt that they all had little to no redeeming qualities. Liz was a terrible mother whose insensitivity to her daughter came across as boredom and inattentiveness, which Huber did an excellent job of conveying. She was a woman who played favorites with her children, and it showed. I also thought that she showed tremendously bad judgement over and over again, and that her behavior was immature and self serving. Richard was obnoxious and came across as a man who cared little about his family but for the image that they projected to his business associates. When he stumbles home after a celebratory round of drinking after a new job offer, his irritating machismo and arrogance are on full display to his crumbling family. Jake is the only character who I had a modicum of respect for, though it’s clear to me that he was completely falling apart due to his parents’ mismanagement of the video crisis.

The messages that this book imparts were disturbing to me. Why does the mismanagement of a video made by a clearly disturbed girl seem to have the power to crumple a family? Why would Liz cop out and make some of the stunningly awful decisions that she made? I’d love to share them here with you but I’m trying to resist spoilers as much as I can. It was as if each of these characters was impacted by this situation and just slowly began to disintegrate from the inside out. There was no responsibility taken for their reactions to this drama, no one to tell them to get it together and make things sensible for the kids. It was almost as if they had been spinning in separate universes and when the drama came down, they began to collide with fruitless malignancy. Their lives just fell apart, and it was ugly.

Another problem that I had was the very graphic nature of some of the narrative. It’s not enough that a young girl made a sex tape, it had to be dissected and described in thinly veiled innuendo that made my stomach sick. In fact, this is how the book opens, so I had already formed a pretty unappetizing opinion of it even before it got to its major plot points. The video continues to have shocking repercussions and it is played upon over and over again, leaving the reader to suffer through the sordid mental visuals of what this young girl did on camera. While I was reading this, I felt very uncomfortable in my skin. As a mother of two teenage kids, I felt that the descriptions and plot tendrils that floated away from this event were not only done in bad taste but it seemed as if it was meant to be titillating. This wasn’t what I had been expecting and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

This book wasn’t to my liking at all, and I think that although it succeeded in being relevant, a lot of it just made me angry. It’s hard to say what I would have thought about this book if I didn’t have teenagers on the cusp of adulthood here at home with me, but I can’t imagine that this would ever be a favorite of mine. While the book managed to be sordid, it didn’t capture my interest in any positive way at all, and I can’t say that I was pleased to have read it.

30 comments:

Harvee said...

I love how you really get into a novel and react to each character, as a good reader should. Great review. It has piqued my interest in this book.

Amy said...

Ick, this sounds like an... interesting read. Starting with a sex tape by a young girl seems like a poor choice on my part, especially if it is actually fully described. I feel ill thinking about it.

Jenny said...

Wow, what a great review! I almost want to read it so I can discuss with you, LOL! I don't like that the sexual descriptions are graphic, especially considering it's regarding a young girl. And the characters definitely sound unlikeable and would probably make me mad too!

Wall-to-wall books said...

This sounds like it has such great potential to be such a good book, but I do not like sexually graphic book either.
Thanks for the heads up on this one.

Aarti said...

Oh, disturbing. If NONE of the characters has any redeeming features, this is unlikely to be a book that I would enjoy, either! It *does* have a nice cover, though :-)

Audra said...

Fantastic review. While the premise is certainly very timely -- the dangers of cell phones and forwarding messages/vids/pics is such a real issue -- it's too bad the book lost the oomph by playing out the more tawdry aspects. Unlikeable characters I can get, esp since it sounds like this family got what they deserved in some ways (and I've sadly witnessed the way adopted children are ignored over bio ones) -- again, it just seems the emotional impact of these unlikeable folks dealing with something so shocking is negated by the lack of redemption or another arc like that. :/ I know this isn't a read for me!

Kaye said...

So, Heather, tell us how you really feel. Lol. I can tell this is not a book for me. Sorry you did not like the characters or the book itself. From your review, I would be surprised if anyone liked it.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

This one really doesn't sound like I would enjoy it. Thanks for the honest review!

Literary Feline said...

I admit you've really gotten me curious about this book. Although, from the description of it, I imagine I would have much the same reaction as you. Thank you for your insightful review!

karen marie said...

Thanks for posting this review! I appreciate how in-depth you are willing to go!

Suko said...

Wow! I had a very different experience with this book. I felt it told a very real or plausible story about a family trying to cope with a situation that had spiraled out of control at lightning speed. I was also quite fortunate to interview the author and gain more insight into this book and the issues it confronts, head on.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Jut about everything you said is a reason why I would hate a book, so hmmm, guessing I would hate this one! :--)

Jenna said...

Sounds like the author was trying to get a specific audience by opening a book with such an explicit and controversial scene. Kudos to you for giving it a go after that because I don’t think I would have been able to continue. I think very few authors can pull off a novel with such dislikable characters that I always wonder why some even bother. Loved your detail and honesty. I depend on reviews like this to steer me away from duds!

Jenna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brooke said...

I will be staying far away from this because I can't afford to get angry at another book right now. Thank you for your candor!

nomadreader said...

Heather, I'm so intrigued by your reaction to this novel. Oddly, even though it didn't work for you, I'm more curious to read it now to see how I would react. Sometimes strong reactions, even negative ones, attract me to books. Great review!

bermudaonion said...

I do think things like that can destroy a family, especially when they're trying to hang on to a facade. I'm sorry to see the book didn't work for you.

Darlene said...

I didn't dislike this book like you did. I guess I saw it in a different light although I didn't like the characters and felt no connection to them whatsoever. I had mentioned this on Sandy's blog as well but I wonder if reading it in paper form made a difference. Sometimes I find that I get much more affected by a story listening to it. Either way sorry it was such a disappointing read for you. I hope the next one is much better.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I had this book, but donated it unread as I just did not think I would like it. Thanks for not making me feel sorry about my decision. Sorry this one did not work for you.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Well said. Honestly I can handle most things. I am not a prude, sex tapes don't smoke me out. But it was just the overall feeling of slime and depravity, taken all the way down to the level of a FIVE YEAR OLD, that just made me nauseous.

Cozy in Texas said...

There's nothing good that can come from a sex tape unless you're a Kardasian. Sounds like you had a lot of good discussion though - good review.
Ann

Jenners said...

I love your honesty and emotion in this review. I think you have some very valid reactions. Every time I've seen a review of this book, I can't quite imagine how a video would take down a whole family. I'm not sure I want to read this but I'm glad you got a good book club discussion out of it.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

your reviews always leave me with questions to ponder - i love how you get inside the book and dissect the very heart of the matter. With that said, being the mother of three teenagers myself and one a 16-year old boy, I know I would not enjoy reading this book. I can certainly understand how it made you angry. Totally awesome review!

Ti said...

I can't imagine the book opening that way! I think I'd feel as you did...that maybe some of it was even unnecessary in getting the point across.

I don't have to like anyone in the stories I read, but their motives for being wretched or hateful have to be spelled out for me to appreciate them.

Plus, how would their lives be ruined just because this kid forwarded it? He didn't make it himself?

Marie said...

sometimes books that engender such strong feelings make for great discussions. at least the book didn't leave you feeling bored, right?

TheBookGirl said...

This is one that I have been on the fence about...then just yesterday I ran into an acquaintance who was holding this book, which she said she was reading for her book club. When I asked her what she thought, she made a face, and said, ugh..it was just all so sleazy in feel.
Her book club chose it because many have teenagers -- she and I have daughters that are in college -- and she said she knows the discussion will be lively, she just wishes that the book hadn't creeped her out so much.
Then I read your review (wonderful as always), and I decided, okay, I will skip this one. Too good books out there to read...

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

Really really bad huh!. I don't know how I would've felt in such a situation.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

A thousand times YES! You already know exactly how I felt about this one, but you definitely said it better than I did. Just yuck.

Amy said...

I didn't think this was a book I wanted to read and I thank you for making me certain of it. I'm just sorry you had to take the time to read this book which sounds like it's lacking any redeeming quality.

From a few other reviews I've read, I felt that the author wanted to shock her readers with awful and unnecessary descriptions of the sex video and so she made made it extremely disturbing and highly inappropriate on purpose.

I knew if I read it, I wouldn't like the mother but I didn't realize how bad she is until your review. I also didn't know that father was such a jerk.

I don't throw many books but I think this one would have made me so annoyed or angry I would probably have thrown it out!

Thank you for your wonderfully honest review and for explaining well why you didn't like this book!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

At least you were able to vent some of your feelings at the book group discussion ... did you consider abandoning it? Did any of the other BBB members? Pass the bordeaux!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Heather; this one is *not* on my TBR.

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