It was hard not to compare This Beautiful Life to The Privileges, which I hated, beyond anything I’ve hated in a long time. I actually threw the book into the garbage when I finished it. BUT in this wonderful gem-like story, Ms. Schulman presents a married couple living in Manhattan, making money, and feeling no pain.
Life at fifteen thousand feet is glorious, especially when you only come down to take your child to a sleepover at the Plaza Hotel.Lizzie, the mother in this story, is still shocked at her good fortune (when do you adapt to your comfortable surroundings?), she and her husband hail from the sticks of up state New York, and have their own son, plus an adopted chinese baby.
The story is quite simple, told in alternating chapters, Lizzie, Richard (the breadwinner) and Jake, the son who undoes the entire quilt with one stupid click of the mouse. This story sails along, pages whip by, and moments flicker like the lights in homes you might pass on a darkened stretch of road.
I never really got to know Jake, except to look on in horror as he tangles tongues with an underage girl at a kids only party (the parents are half way around the world), and then as he forwards a video of this same girl having sex with a baseball bat out to his friends. The trouble is, the video goes viral and the rest of this story is about how the family plays catch up. Some fine sweeping under the carpet takes place, and it was rather sickening to watch.
The great thing, or one of the great things about these people is they seemed real, like they were going to suffer from Jake’s actions. He didn’t want that email, but this girl sent it to him, she wanted him, but he didn’t need to forward it out. One character says, “you should show chivalry.” But who is there to teach Jake that lesson? His absentee father or stoned-on-luxury mother? Parenting in this book is more like post-event parenting, cleaning up, making up, and saving face. How about active parenting?
All along Richard is on the tip of a big deal, brokering it wildly like some bookmaker at OTB, and Lizzie is torturing a former lover by pretending to be someone she’s not. Lizzie is bored to death, Richard is earning enough for both of them. Their children, Coco the chinese baby is old enough to surf the internet, Jake is winning the “dumbest kid in Manhattan” award every day.
All of this wraps itself quietly inside glorious writing. This novel is filled with tightly chiseled moments. When Jake sees a girl he adores getting a drink of water (oh wait, he has a great, scratch that, beyond great nickname for her), and he notices her blue veins that run along her arms, and how he wants to push them down, hold her, devour her. Or when Richard runs through the park after dropping off Coco at the private school which all kids above 72nd street in NYC seem to go to, it’s his legs, heart, sweat and gasping for air which all grab your attention as you run nearby. As I said, Jake nearly sinks this battleship, but it is Lizzie who threatens to ruin the family when she refuses to accept the beautiful life Richard has fought so hard for.
The one reason I hated The Privileges was because there seemed to be no penalty for the bullshit thievery that went on, especially when the mother loses her kids on the subway, and presto, at the next stop they appear with a family friend. Nonsense. Nevermind when the man of the house gets away with insider trading, and gets filthy rich doing it. Maybe there are no penalties for these people, and this is just how it is. The rich get richer, and they get away with murder. Is that part of life?
All this to say, read this damn book, it’s is a thrill, funny, weird and intensely personal. Richard and Lizzie meltdown in the eleventh hour and it’s so perfectly pointed that I can’t really describe the joy I felt when this beautiful couple realized the American dream is just one long nightmare. Happiness doesn’t grow in the bank, it’s organic and rises under your feet slowly, like grass.