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This Beautiful Life - Helen Schulman

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Helen Schulman / Paperback / 288 Pages / Book is published 2012-02-01 by Atlantic Books

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      17.01.2012 19:39
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      Teenage actions and consequences in an upper class Manhattan family

      Richard and Liz are new in town which is always a bummer, except this town is Manhattan so really nothing else could ever compare. They've only moved from upstate New York but it seems a world away now. Liz has given up her post at the university to concentrate on kids Coco and Jake and is finding juggling their social lives a full time job in itself but is just about making a space for herself among the other mothers at the school gates. Things are going ok. And then, one day, their nice, comfortable world starts to crumble. Jake receives an explicit email from a classmate and in disbelief, forwards it straight on to a friend. Except rather than coming back to him with advice on what the heck to do next, the friend chooses to send it on to another friend, who does the same. Round and round it goes, round the school, round the city, round the online world. Everyone knows where it came from and soon Jake's academic future, his father's career and his whole family's social standing are hanging in the balance.

      A new author can be a little like a new acquaintance - maybe someone you're hoping to become friends with, but of whom you might initially be a little wary. Not here. Reading Schulman for the first time was like one of those wonderful moments when your first encounter feels like you've known someone forever. The style was so me. The language was so me. The story was so me. Heck, if I could I would head to Manhattan and make myself part of their family because, for all the flaws, for all the drama, for all the hysteria of their life throughout the book, I thought they were wonderful.

      The story is told from the point of view of the three older members of the family, the fourth, Coco, being deemed either too young or too self-absorbed to have anything worth saying. The contrast between Richard and Liz is well defined but both garnered my sympathies and my allegiance switched back and forth depending on who was in the focus in each chapter.

      I liked the matter of factness with which some parts of the family's life were laid bare. It doesn't really matter that their daughter Coco was adopted from China, and so this is presented as a simple fact, almost in passing. They're certainly not the kind of family who saw an oriental baby as the latest must-have fashion accessory, but simply wanted a daughter, couldn't conceive one, so went elsewhere. That's just the sort of people Liz and Richard are - they go after what they want. Equally, for the most part Liz's former life in academia is brushed over: she once worked, she doesn't now, she may or may not return in the future. For the sake of the plot it doesn't really matter, and she could easily have been a stay at home mom all along, but the little details that pepper the story help to bring it to life, almost as if someone is filling you in on the new neighbours in the apartment next door.

      There's not much in the way of suspense in this book as the main event happens early on, and everything else is just post-catastrophe damage control. I didn't feel let down by this because the blurb had pretty much given it away anyway - instead I kept reading because I wanted to know how the family and community would deal with the aftermath. It's the sort of thing that could have gone any one of a dozen ways, and some of the information that emerges - such as Richard's dealings with the press - was unpredictable and therefore interesting to see through.

      At the start I had no idea how it was ever going to fit together, and re-reading the first couple of chapters again I'm not really sure what a Plaza sleepover really has to do with anything, except to give you a quick introduction to what kind of people we're dealing with here. That's not to say I didn't find it fascinating, because I did, and I loved getting to know Coco before her brother commandeered the rest of the story, but it was a bit random. I wasn't expecting it, but in the end I thought it was right that Daisy's presence in the story, though emotionally never-ending, was physically fleeting. This isn't her story - it's Jake's and his family's, and very much about consequences rather than actions - but her reappearance in the epilogue was a nice touch.

      Opinion of this book online seems to be quite divided, and although I adored it and sped through the pages, I can see why others might be less enthused. Along with the lack of suspense, there isn't a clear victim or villain here, so it's hard to know who to root for if that sort of thing is important to you. Some may bemoan the family's wealth, their connections, their lifestyle, but I hardly think it's unrealistic. It may not be representative of the average American, but I truly believe there is a subset of society, especially in New York, who does live like this, and considering the likes of Gossip Girl, this lot are really quite tame in comparison.

      All of that said, none of this mattered to me. I thought it was an intriguing, insightful read, and I'd call it 5 star fiction. Simple as.

      This review originally appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk

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