THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A modern family's fall, finely etched

(Owen Freeman for The Boston Globe)
By Meredith Maran
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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If you’ve read novels, or written one (or died inside trying), you know how many ways there are to botch the job. Cardboard characters who lie flat on the page, refusing to breathe or bleed. Plots more imitative than innovative; romances that go clunk in the night. Overused, overwritten settings; implausible twists of fate, too much or too little backstory, dialogue, humor, sex.

With each level of difficulty added to the undertaking, the author ups the ante - a good thing for the reader - while increasing the odds that she will fail. It takes a mighty talent to create nuanced, unpredictable characters with muscle enough to haul readers through 300 pages with the confidence of a seasoned fisherman reeling food in from the sea. Furthermore, the author needs a firm grip and a feather-light touch to layer a provocative cultural critique onto a domestic drama. Lucky us. In “This Beautiful Life,’’ her fourth novel, Helen Schulman demonstrates all the requisite skills.

Narrated by the contrasting voices of mother, father, and son, Schulman’s latest is an extraordinarily smart, funny morality tale about an ordinary family - paterfamilias Richard Bergamot, stay-home mom Liz, 15-year-old Jake, and adopted Chinese daughter Coco, 9 - doing ordinary things in an ordinary place and time, but with shocking results.

When we meet them, the Bergamots have been lured to Manhattan from kinder, gentler Ithaca by a lucrative job offer Richard couldn’t refuse. Richard promptly disappears into 24/7 workaholism, leaving his overeducated, erstwhile art historian wife to shepherd the family’s transition. The Bergamot kids are ensconced in a posh private school “housed in a limestone fortress, a former home of some robber baron,’’ Liz comments in one of Schulman’s many lyrical passages. “Hyacinths in spun sugar colors bloomed in the window boxes of the town houses across the street. Cherry blossoms wept snowy petals in the breeze.’’

In a nod to the shared social conscience that once shaped Liz and Richard and now merely irritates them, Liz sarcastically reassures her husband that their kids’ school reflects their bypassed values. “Marjorie says, ‘Sure there’s diversity. There’s millionaires . . . and then there’s billionaires.’ ’’

Bright and restless, Liz spends her days schlepping kids, and, as boredom and then despair set in, slugging vodka shots, feeling enslaved by her peers’ trends du jour. “That stupid French press,’’ Schulman has her kvetch one cranky, hung-over morning. “What she wouldn’t give for a Mr. Coffee now.’’

Schulman’s lush prose, incisive wit, fully realized characters, and ambitious reach beyond story to social commentary are so formidable, the novel’s plot pales a bit in comparison. Ironically, the book’s weakest link is the hook on which it hangs.

The family’s “beautiful life’’ plummets from precipitous to disastrous the day Jake opens his e-mail, finds a pornographic video made for him by an eighth-grade girl, and forwards it to a friend. Before he can say “for your eyes only’’ the video goes viral, triggering a chain of consequences that bring the Bergamots, and the novel, into full frontal showdown with the culture of empty affluence that seduces and ultimately victimizes them. The whole family is shunned by the “progressive’’ school community they have uprooted their lives to join. Jake is suspended from school indefinitely, jeopardizing his mental stability along with his Ivy League future. At a crucial moment in his career ascension, Richard is forced to take a leave of absence from his job. Liz sinks into depression, barely able to function, so awash is she in maternal shame and remorse.

Instead of beating the reader over the head with her keen observations, Schulman lets her protagonists advance the higher purpose of her book. Her depiction of Liz and Richard’s relationship, for example, chillingly infers that imposing a prefeminist dynamic - breadwinning husband, homebody wife - on a postfeminist marriage regresses even the most astute partners to a 1950s-style balance of marital power. As Liz frets about what to wear to a lavish party, Richard thinks, “It was part of their daily rhythm, him soothing her while glancing at the headlines of the New York Times.’’ When Liz pulls Richard out of an important meeting to report on their son’s latest calamity, “He feels a brief surge of annoyance - why can’t she just handle this? Still, there is no time for irritation now; he loves her, he is her husband, it’s their boy they are discussing, and he needs to settle her down.’’

Can the Bergamots keep their balance in the face of crisis, as individuals and as a family? Can our culture keep its balance despite the sucking pull of crass materialism, scapegoating, and tell-all technology? These are the questions Schulman asks, and they couldn’t be more relevant to our place and time.

The finest novels, including “This Beautiful Life,’’ shove their readers a few degrees off-center, forcing us out of our certainties and into new vantage points from which to view the world we live in and the parts we play in it - “the whole catastrophe,’’ as Zorba said.

Meredith Maran is the author, most recently, of “My Lie.’’ Her first novel, “A Theory of Small Earthquakes,’’ will be published by Counterpoint in February 2012. She can be reached at meredith@meredithmaran.com.

THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE By Helen Schulman

Harper, 222 pp., $24.99