Helen Schulman’s fifth novel, This Beautiful Life, (Atlantic, £7.99), set in contemporary Manhattan, is a bold exploration of a family at breaking point, with themes of sex, love and morality.
The Bergamots, recent arrivals from rural Ithaca, seemingly have it all. Richard is successful and ambitious, “allergic to failure” and determined to succeed in his new job, spearheading a plan to build a new university campus. His Jewish wife, Lizzie, a former art historian, is now a reluctant stay-at- home mother to Jake, 15, and six-year-old, adopted, Chinese daughter Coco.
While father and daughter adapt easily to their new life, mother and son are emotionally fragile and far less comfortable. One day, their lives are suddenly shattered when Jake receives a sexually explicit video from a 13-year-old girl he recently met at a party, and whose attention he rejects.
Unthinkingly, he forwards the video to a friend and, almost immediately, it goes viral, drawing him and his family into a scandal that has life-changing repercussions.
Cracks appear in the façade of Richard and Lizzie’s seemingly happy relationship, revealing the Bergamots as a couple who are disappointed and burdened by their roles.
This slim novel is hugely ambitious in its scope, offering both a social satire of Manhattan high life, and a serious study of marital breakdown — as well as illlustrating the perils of the internet.
In less skilful hands this material could be tawdry and clichéd. Schulman’s gift lies in her ability to create wholly believable challenges for her characters, while pushing them to the limits of emotional and psychological endurance. At times funny, poignant and disturbing, This Beautiful Life is both compulsively readable as well as being a sensitively nuanced exploration of modern family life.