July 11, 2011

Notes on a scandal

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It’s hard to resist the allure of a good scandal . . . as long as it’s happening to someone else. But with so much on display thanks to social networking and video-sharing websites, it can be easy for something private to result in public disgrace. In Helen Schulman’s arresting fifth novel, This Beautiful Life, the Bergamot family proves they are no exception to this rule.

When love-struck eighth-grader Daisy sends a homemade, sexually explicit video to 15-year-old Jake Bergamot, his first instinct is to forward it to a friend. As the video is passed around Jake’s classmates, it eventually makes its way outside of the schoolyard and into the hands of the media, elevating it to viral status and turning all blame and outrage toward Jake.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Jake, his mother Liz and his father Richard (while adopted sister, Coco, languishes in the background), the story follows the family as they bumble their way through the aftermath and struggle under the hard scrutiny of the public. As all three shoulder the fallout, they ultimately embrace their own acts of deviance when the reality of what’s at stake for each of them starts to unfold.

Adopting a device similar to the one she used in A Day at the Beach, in which a couple’s deteriorating marriage is brought to light in the face of 9/11, Schulman exposes the fragility of the seemingly happy Bergamots by throwing them to the wolves in their own personal tragedy. The story is peppered with flashbacks, revealing pivotal moments in the family’s history when decisions had to be made without fully realizing the sacrifices that were to come. Much like those moments in the past, the decisions the Bergamots make during this pivotal moment weigh heavily on their happiness, success and fate as a family.  

Supported by an elegant, succinct voice that sometimes lapses into a kind of everyday prose, This Beautiful Life draws readers in with its empathetic portrayal of just how easy it can be to jeopardize everything in mere seconds. By presenting a dilemma anyone can appreciate in today’s digital age and characters who effortlessly stir up recognition—they are brilliantly, excruciatingly and deplorably human—Schulman gives her readers courtside seats to the devastation a scandal can cause, reminding them that while it’s hard to resist the allure of a good scandal, it almost always comes at a high price for someone else.

Rachel Norfleet is a writer and copy editor in Nashville.

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