Skin Deep Writing

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman


Image via Barnes&Noble

I have good news, and I have bad news. But first a (very little) bit about the story.

A young girl appears naked on the Internet. A boy notices, and in some state of discombobulation, he passes the link on to a friend. Of course, the girl goes locally viral, and the first boy gets in trouble. He eventually gets out of trouble due to one of his parents, who has a friend who has a friend. This whole mess happens amid a Chardonnay–and-Hummer-in-the-‘burbs family who curse a lot, drink too much, value image over substance…and on and on.

The good news is the author is a sporadically decent writer, one who has obviously spent a good bit of time assaying this American subculture. The ideas behind her novel are contemporary and occasionally captivating. She toys with the idea of confidentiality lost in the digital age. She whizzes past a mention of the movie The Matrix, in which she sees the movie’s hero, Neo, as someone breaking out of the banality of her characters’ oh-so-nice lifestyle. In which Neo “discovered the true nature of the world and mastered it.”

The bad news, I’m afraid, is that her characters simply aren’t up to any sort of alchemy that will make substantial gold of the concocted story’s lead. And, it seems, her characters even drag down the author’s writing:

“Hello,” says Richard.

“Richard,” says the voice.

“Strauss?” says Richard.

“Scott Levine. How are you?”

There are switches into present tense, which may seem agile writing, but such leaps are to no apparent technical or literary purpose. And at times, the author seems to lose whatever intimacy she has with her characters – to the point that she sneers at them.

image via Curtis Brown LTD

I suspect the author is writing with an editor’s or an agent’s advice for a book club market of the, well, Chardonnay-and-Hummer…etc. crowd. In the end, there’s nothing to really resolve here, nor anything to trouble readers who might feel the banality of the characters' situations, and the author seems without the moxie to transform these sad sacks into anything real.


My rating:8 of 20





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