terça-feira, 17 de dezembro de 2013
No Vaccine for Agony From Viral E-Mail
By JANET MASLIN
THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE
By Helen Schulman
222 pages. Harper. $24.99.
The readers to whom Helen Schulman’s novel “This Beautiful Life” will most appeal are those who already know everything about it. Ms. Schulman holds a mirror up to the lives of moneyed, elite New York private-school families and invites such people to nod in recognition. In terms of a less provincial audience “This Beautiful Life” should please anyone who enjoys seeing the destruction of a happy family framed as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The cover art depicts a house of cards. What might happen to that house of cards by the time Ms. Schulman’s story of a calamitous prep-school sex scandal is over?
The “beautiful life” on these pages is that of the four Bergamots, who have moved from a college town, where they were thriving, to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they only appear to be thriving. (Big difference.) Lizzie, the mother, shares some common ground with heroines of Ms. Schulman’s other novels, especially “A Day at the Beach,” her much more powerful and inexorable evocation of the effects of 9/11 on a TriBeCa couple.
Lizzie is married to a handsome, powerful, commanding guy. She is Jewish and a worrier; he is neither. She is a former art historian who has sacrificed her career on the altar of motherhood, even though she might not put it that way. But Lizzie notices that “a lot of formers” belong to the Wildwood PTA.
Wildwood Upper and Lower are the schools that the two Bergamot children attend. Jake, at the Upper School, is a naïve 15-year-old still trying to figure out where he fits into its stratified social structure. The Upper School is in Riverdale, just north of Manhattan, but it draws a large, spoiled, party-hopping Park Avenue demographic.
In the same school’s Manhattan kindergarten, meanwhile, Jake’s feisty little sister, Coco, is a former Chinese orphan who is now a privileged and socially unstoppable New Yorker. The book does its heaviest foreshadowing about Jake via a lavish mother-daughter sleepover birthday party that sends Lizzie and Coco to the Plaza Hotel. “The mothers swapped sex stories while the little girls gave each other makeovers, heavy on the eye makeup, until they looked like miniature Russian whores,” Ms. Schulman writes, for this will be a story about disastrous sexual precocity. And Central Park at dawn looks starkly divided between nighttime and morning, because this book is also about stark questions of right and wrong.
After the party Lizzie “wasn’t sure if she’d just spent the evening giving her young daughter a fairy-tale night to remember or if she’d ruinously inflated the kid’s expectations for life.” And Lizzie isn’t sure what Jake was doing that night, but she is about to find out the hard way. “Last night, both of Elizabeth Bergamot’s children had had parties to go to,” Ms. Schulman writes, drawing back briefly from the book’s intense focus on quotidian detail. “Bad mother Liz! She’d chaperoned the wrong one. She was going to mommy prison. Literally, she was.”
It’s true. While Liz and Coco were playing Eloise, Jake was wandering through the landscape of a Jodi Picoult moral melodrama about a fiery issue in the news. He went to a party at the Riverdale house of a rich, unsupervised eighth-grade girl named Daisy Cavanaugh. He got drunk; he flirted; he rejected Daisy. Then Daisy made a pornographic video that was supposed to prove to Jake that she was old enough to have sex with him. She e-mailed it. He reacted with confusion: “Was this pornography? Was it even sexy? He thought it was sexy, but he wasn’t sure.” So Jake forwards the e-mail to a male friend to get a second opinion. Following Jake’s ill-advised lead, the friend forwards it too.
The video goes viral. Jake is demonized, Daisy humiliated. Wildwood takes disciplinary action. Richard Bergamot, Lizzie’s unflappable husband, gets hurt too. He was in the middle of a high-profile effort on the part of a Columbia-like university to expand its campus without inflaming neighbors. He was flying high. But his presence in these delicate negotiations suddenly becomes a public relations liability. And all the Bergamots except for Coco find themselves suddenly stuck at home, each suffering in his or her neatly designated way.
As for Coco, Ms. Schulman parks her on the story’s sidelines until she can appear to give the ultimate damning commentary on a society that encourages its little girls to vamp around like music video stars or get made up like Russian whores. But where, really, does the blame for this crisis lie? Do e-mail and text messages create problems or just exacerbate those that already exist? When did it become possible to wreak lasting damage with seemingly small indiscretions?
“This Beautiful Life” is set several years ago, when a pornographic teenage video was still something of a novelty. Given the time lag, hindsight might be expected, but Ms. Schulman doesn’t rely heavily on that. Instead, more effectively, she gives Jake time to read “The Great Gatsby” and to ponder an eternal verity: Some people smash up the lives of others and retreat back into money and carelessness, letting others take the blame and clean up the damage.
This book’s Daisy Cavanaugh is hardly F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan. But Ms. Schulman does supply a magical, lighter-than-air young girl who bewitches Jake in the Daisy Buchanan manner, even if her name is Audrey and her heritage is Chinese. And although much of “This Beautiful Life” has a mundane air of rehashed news and an inside-baseball view of New York’s insular prep-school world, there are isolated moments when the writing takes flight.
This is Audrey, sick of her own allure, disgusted by Jake’s affection, and providing some measure of his fall from grace: “She took back her sweatshirt and tied it around her tiny waist, like the sleeves were a black velvet ribbon and Audrey herself was a package, a precious little gift. She slung that cool bag over her shoulder and she started walking. She started walking away from Jake and all the idiot boys, walking away from the prison of her youth and beauty and into the hard-fought-for loneliness of her future.” The prospect of such desolation hangs over every character in this story. It will not be Audrey’s alone.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 21:18