I've been on a roll this summer reading and reviewing good novels about family crises — Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang. But, this latest domestic drama is one I recommend with a big caveat — especially if you happen to be a parent: Make sure you start Helen Schulman's new novel, This Beautiful Life, on a Friday night, so that when you find yourself compelled to stay up all hours reading it, you can take the rest of the weekend, not only to recover, but to think long and hard about the advantages for your kids of home schooling; cloistered convents, kibbutzes, monasteries and ashrams; or, perhaps, a semester abroad program in Antarctica.
You think I jest, but This Beautiful Life is one scary story, made more so by Schulman's great gifts as a close — and often funny — observer of upper-class social customs. Here's the situation: The Bergamot family moves from idyllic Ithaca to New York City when the dad, Richard, accepts a high-level administrative position at a Columbia-type university. Mom, Liz, has a Ph.D. in art history, but she has put her own fuzzy career ambitions on hold to raise son Jake, who's now 15, and daughter Coco, 6. The Bergamots find themselves plunked into the world of elite private schools, which include kindergarten sleepovers at The Plaza Hotel and birthday-party chartered cruises around Manhattan. In the contemporary comedy-of-manners tradition of a novel like Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It, Schulman, through Liz's alienated perspective, dissects the various cliques standing outside Coco's elementary school at pickup time. Here's a sampling:
The JAPS with the JAPS, the head-banded preppy moms with the preppies, the stray earth mother in Birkenstocks with a baby in a sling ...
Next on the food chain, the "caregivers": a couple of grad students reading Kierkegaard or Sartre and listening to their iPods; ... the small dark fortress of the Caribbean nannies, ...
Liz ... saw a clutch of yummy mummies at the foot of the steps; ... she knew queen bees when she saw them. They were tall in their metallic sandals; their skinny yoga butts trim in their designer jeans ... Only experience told her that when these ladies turned away from their gabby circle to place a cell phone call to their driver or decorator or art consultant, that the skin on their faces would be pure leather.
Fraught with tension as that female gauntlet may be, the consequences of a social misstep prove to be much more dire in Jake's teenaged world. At an unchaperoned house party one weekend, Jake attracts the attentions of a lust-struck eighth-grade girl. He rebuffs her, sort-of, but, undeterred, she sends him a homemade sexually explicit video later that night. Jake freaks out when he sees the video in the privacy of his room and, out of a mixture of fright and sexual braggadocio, he forwards the girl's email to a guy friend, who then sends it on to his friends. Schulman describes the burgeoning virtual disaster this way:
By Monday, it was all over ... school. ... Kids were downloading it and watching it in the library ... Kids were finding it on porno sites. It was all over the country, maybe the world, even. So fast. Just like that. Forward and Send. It was kind of incredible how fast it went. Faster than fire. Practically the speed of sound or even light.
Within weeks, the flourishing future that the Bergamot family envisioned for itself has withered — all because of a few impulsive adolescent finger clicks on the computer.
What sets This Beautiful Life apart from, say, your average Lifetime Movie of the Week domestic drama is not only Shulman's closely observed depictions of the Bergamot family's collapse, but also her smart dramatization of how powerless we all are before the mighty, privacy-dissolving force of the Internet. At the climax of the novel, a distressed Liz cries to her husband about their children, "I don't know how to protect them. The genie's out of the bottle. It's in the air."
That last line sounds like it could have come out of a 1950s horror movie. Indeed, as wry and entertaining as Shulman's social observations are, it's the totally convincing nightmare aspect of her novel that will keep parental readers up at night, wondering how on earth to pull the drawbridges up and shutter the windows against this most potent invisible home invader.