published Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Teens find trouble in digital age

"This Beautiful Life" by Helen Schulman. Harper. 222 pages. $25.

By Adera Causey

One small decision, one mindless act, can lead to seemingly disproportionate results. In a culture of technology-fueled instantaneity and constantly morphing sexual mores and conceptions of childhood, any act that touches on these areas can be explosive as Helen Schulman portrays in her new novel, "This Beautiful Life."

The life at hand does seem to be one filled with enviable beauty. It is the life of a golden family -- Richard, whose high-paying Manhattan job allows him one foot in academia and one in finance, his intellectual sparring partner, Liz, whose academic rigor matches his but whose career has been sidelined by his ambitions, his teen son Jake, who is adjusting fairly well to his new affluent prep school and his precocious kindergartener, Coco, whose Eastern features mark her as an adopted daughter, a mark which raises the family's diversity cred in their liberal crowd.

But the golden world is about to be eclipsed by one action following a teen party. This party mirrors those found across America each weekend -- parents out of town, large crowds filling the home, couples joining up, intoxicants overindulged. Jake and his friends go to this party seeking fun and, in Jake's case, the chance to talk to his crush Audrey. But he discovers instead a much younger girl at his school named Daisy who has designs on him. In a moment of beer-goggle decision making, he briefly hooks up with then rejects Daisy.

The young girl, confused, upset and desperate for companionship, decides to reach out for him in a truly 21st-century way by filming an illicit video of her barely pubescent self engaging in a very sexual dance that leaves nothing to the imagination. A shocked Jake in typical teen fashion impulsively forwards it to his best friend, and in this age of hyper-public lives, there is no mystery what will happen from here.

While the media today sensationalizes such sexting scandals, Schulman avoids moralizing in favor of a quieter, but no less troubling, inner look at the family most affected by it. Richard's Type A personality leads him to take this as a call to work harder, make more money, run farther, be the ultimate stoic provider. For Liz, it calls attention to all of her failings, as a woman, a mother and a professional, as she cocoons into her fantasy world and becomes a voyeur of disturbing internet material.

Jake's path seems perhaps more healthy -- a meltdown, a recovery and an obstacle-laden but mostly trespassable return to school and normalcy -- but the foreshadowing to his later years indicates that this issue long boils deep within him. Even Coco is affected by her own hazy understanding of what has transpired, leading her to reenact the video for her friends in a scene that is almost painful to read.

While this all takes place in the world of the elite, Schulman does not allow this to become a schaunfraude fantasy or a pity party for the pampered. Instead with her close examination, all sense of privilege melts, and we become voyeurs of a nakedness that goes deep into the soul. It is this odd relationship we develop with the novel that implicates us and entertains us that makes this book so unique in approach and exposition. The haunting story that results reminds us that there is no simple way to define "This Beautiful Life."

Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

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