This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman, comes out today, and luckily I have read an advance copy sent to me by HarperCollins, and can warn you that it is not a novel I would buy.
I had hopes for it; the story is about a mother with a PhD who has been staying at home to raise two children, a 15-year-old boy and an adopted 6-year-old girl. Early on in the novel, the mother, Liz, “took one look at her messy home and was overwhelmed by how much there was to do and how little she wanted to do it. Finding that first step into an amorphous day, a day without bones, was always the hardest.” That rings true to me, and I looked forward to finding out more about how Liz found herself in such a situation.
But the novel disappointed me; I never found out much more about Liz, or about Richard, her husband. By the middle, Liz is still whining about how “she hasn’t accomplished all she’s wanted to accomplish,” and by the end she simply gives up on almost everything that was “beautiful” to her at the beginning.
This novel may be another example of the problem with academic writers trying to do it all and write what they know; the novelist is identified on the novel’s cover as “an associate professor of writing at The New School” who “lives in New York City with her husband and two children.”
The children in the novel function solely as plot devices. They’re the kind of children, it seems, who have been conceived to set off their attractive parents as pretty toddlers in family photos. This explains why Liz is inconvenienced by her son’s recent growth: “where did he get such shoulders?” Jake is so clueless about life in the computer age that when a girl sends him a pornographic video, he forwards it to a friend, setting in motion the conflict of the novel. The little girl, Coco, doesn’t do anything except dance provocatively at one point, giving the narrator a chance to let Liz wring her hands ineffectively about how her children have been exposed to sexual innuendo.
Attitudes about sex, clearly meant to form the heart of this novel, are as badly over-simplified as the characterizations. Once Jake has forwarded the video, his father thinks to himself “it’s not bad parenting. Maybe it wasn’t the kind of behavior his father would have expected from him—‘You always treat girls honorably,’ Dad said ‘With respect.’ Hadn’t he and Lizzie taught Jake the same thing, albeit in a different language? Hadn’t they said, ‘Safe sex, and better with someone you love’?” Oh sure, there’s a sensitive version of how to talk to your children about sex!
The narrator of This Beautiful Life keeps straining to make a comparison between the way Richard’s father raised him—he “loved his boys within reason”—and the way Richard and the rest of his generation are raising their own sons—“they are both too close to their own 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.” But I don’t buy it.
Perhaps there is a small group of overly materialistic parents in New York City today who worry about this stuff, but most parents don’t think of their children as deliveries from the “I have it all” prop room to be sent back for repair when their presentation falters.