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Review: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
Schulman cunningly constructs her controversy – fictional, though with well-judged shadows of some factual scandals – to make easy moralising hard for readers, writes Mark Lawson.

This Beautiful Life
by Helen Schulman
Atlantic Books, 288 pp.

Dropping her daughter at kindergarten shortly after her teenage son has become involved in a viral online sex scandal, Lizzie Bergamot, a previously smug and secure member of the Manhattan upper middle classes, finds herself feeling like "a modern-day Hester Prynne". The reader is trusted to understand this nod to the Puritan-infuriating adulterous heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter – although anyone not in the know could always Google it, which would be appropriate, as This Beautiful Life stylishly dramatises the effect of new technologies on old moralities.

It's crucial to the theme of Helen Schulman's fifth novel that the mother feels ostracism and humiliation even though it was her son who forwarded to friends – and then inadvertently the world – an emailed video clip in which a 15-year-old girl performs a graphic sex dance for him. A novel that might have been titled either Shame or Disgrace, if Salman Rushdie and JM Coetzee hadn't used them first, thoughtfully explores whether the Bergamots – under-employed art historian Lizzie and high-powered business executive Richard – are victims or enablers of their son's behaviour.

And, as the participants are forced to reflect, can the possibility of shame exist in a culture where the concepts of privacy and shame are so compromised? In the book's bleakest scenes, the under-age sexual provocateur becomes a celebrity at school – autographing copies of a prop she used in her routine – and a role model for even younger girls. There seems to be a clear authorial concern about the way in which post-feminist sexual self-confidence can become indistinguishable from subservience to the desires of men: every sexual act in the book is initiated by a woman, who generally comes out on unequal terms.

But Schulman cunningly constructs her controversy – fictional, though with well-judged shadows of some factual scandals – to make easy moralising hard for readers. Jake Bergamot, six months shy of 16, is invited to a party at the Cavanaughs' grand house in the affluent New York district of Riverdale. Students of American literature will suspect the mansion of being Gatsbyesque, and there is even a dangerous young woman called Daisy, two of several explicit echoes of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic depiction of American financial immorality. It is no surprise to learn later that Jake has been studying The Great Gatsby at school.

He briefly makes out with Daisy Cavanaugh, 15, but, uncomfortable with how young she seems, rejects an offer of sex. So, in avoiding an offence of statutory rape, Jake has done the right thing, although he subsequently proves less responsible when sharing with friends the sex film that Daisy makes for him as evidence of what he missed.

The cleverness of this set-up is that Jake has at worst made a small, unthinking mistake and yet becomes an educational and social pariah and declared enemy of women. The British publishers cannily compare the novel to The Slap, in which a casual act also has massively disproportionate consequences (another alternative title for this book might have been The Click).

For the rest of the review

The Guardian