Hunter Biden’s Beautiful Things is an unflinchingly honest look inside the First Family: Review
If you were to ask Hunter Biden about the thesis of his new memoir, Beautiful Things (Apr. 6), he'd probably offer up something about his personal journey through (and out of) addiction. And while the book affords the reader a harrowing play-by-play of his descent into depravity — as you've surely seen in the headlines by now, Biden's drug of choice was crack, which he used both in opulent Los Angeles surroundings and Washington D.C.'s seedier areas — that isn't what shocks the system the most. Instead, it's the ability to gaze (and, occasionally, gawk) inside the beating heart of the Biden family.
His father, of course, is President Joe Biden. Thanks to a combination of a decades-long life in politics and the unprecedented nature of modern elections to pry open every facet of one's life for debate and judgement, we know all the biographic details of Hunter's life before we crack a page of Beautiful Things. We know that when he was a toddler, just after his father became a senator, he was in a horrific car accident that killed his mother and sister. We know that at the shocking age of 30, the elder Biden was sworn in to his new position from the hospital bedside of his two surviving sons. We know that Hunter was raised partially by extended Biden family members but also by his stepmother and current First Lady Jill Biden. That his brother Beau Biden died of complications from glioblastoma, the same brain cancer that killed John McCain, that in the aftermath Hunter and Beau's widow, Hallie, entertained a bit of a relationship. We know that he accepted a high-paying board position for a Ukrainian company, even if we don't entirely understand the minutiae of its political consequences.
In writing, Hunter assumes you know all that and instead fills in what didn't end up in Politico or Page Six. He opens the book with the death of his brother, Beau — his absence haunts most of the book. He describes him as "the best friend I've ever had and the person I loved most in the world," and the details he offers of their childhood bond and the way it ruled their final days and weeks together are Beautiful Things' strongest. There are the medical cruelties of brain cancer: Beau, a former Army major who served in Iraq, needed his younger brother to help him eat, tie his shoes, use the bathroom. The memoir's title comes from Beau's constant refrain, "beautiful things" serving as a metaphor for everything the brothers would do together after he beat cancer. They were also the last words Beau spoke to Hunter, as they sat on the porch of the family home in Wilmington, gazing at the landscape of their childhood. "I pressed my cheek against my brother's forehead, then kissed it," he writes. "I reached out for my dad's hand as it still held Beau's…. Dad ran his fingers through my hair and wept with me."
The memoir flashes back and forth between the different Biden family tragedies before landing on a (nearly) chronological telling of Hunter's journey to sobriety. There are always so many Bidens. As children, Hunter and Beau have grandparents, aunts, uncles, a half-sister circling them constantly. As adults, the web gets larger thanks to spouses, exes, children, cousins, and it's nearly impossible to keep track. The result is, purposeful or not, a portrait of our current President as the ultimate Patriarch. The family, and Joe specifically, seems to command a loyalty and a devotion that feels extreme — but Succession this is not. Maybe you noticed during the election or inauguration, but this family is eerily close (pity the only child who reads this memoir).
Beautiful Things makes that clear as well in dozens of subtle ways; Hunter makes sure to describe not only all the things that his father has done for him, but the blatant affection he is so willing to offer up at all times. These are powerful men who hug and kiss, who say "I love you" constantly, who talk about their feelings without masculine pretense. Maybe we're all just really messed up from the last administration, but you'd have to try — hard — to come away from the book without a reverence for this.
As open as Biden is with his losses, he's guarded about other elements. The section that addresses his work for Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company at the heart of Donald Trump's first impeachment, feels more like an op-ed or even a script prepared for an interview. You can almost hear the conversation with a political strategist (what are we going to say about Ukraine?). The testimony feels truthful — it isn't exactly spin — but also out of place in what is otherwise a grief memoir. Biden never needed to answer for everything in one book. The same issue afflicts the third act, when Biden ties his four-year-plus long addiction spiral up with a recovery narrative (he meets his now-wife, Melissa, at a West Hollywood hotel while high and quits cold turkey) so rushed it feels, narratively-speaking, like a post-script. Biden's descriptions of and reflections on his time of active addiction are harrowing, raw, and quite generously honest, and he doesn't offer that for his proclaimed happy ending. He doesn't owe us the world, but as readers, we're left to piece things together.
Beautiful Things was written after the elder Biden's intentions to pursue the presidency were clear, and even though it releases well after any potential impact on a campaign, it's hard not to see the book's intentions as an endorsement of the Biden ethos. "He did it, Beau!" Hunter writes in the book's epilogue, which is formatted as a final letter to his brother. "He beat back a vile man with a vile mission, and he did it without lowering himself to the unprecedented depths reached by his opposition." The book doesn't include the photo insert that has become the norm in political memoirs (like both Michelle and Barack Obama), but the final page is a photograph that Joe gave Hunter in 2018. "The bravest boy and man I've ever known," he inscribes. "I love you more than the whole sky." For a man who claims no political ambitions, Hunter Biden sure knows how to show off a platform of decency. Grade: B