We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant

Review copy courtesy Virago UK

I will admit to having a challenge with this novel. I liked Linda Grant’s last novel (The Clothes On Their Backs) so much that it was my favorite for the 2008 Man Booker. I have great admiration for her journalism which, in her fiction, is complemented by a deep appreciation for her Jewish heritage. She is of my generation and experience so, when I read the opening promotions of this novel, I was eagerly awaiting it. All of that would represent the classic definition of “high expectations”.

We Had It So Good is the latest example in what I think will be a genre that we will see more of in the next few years: mature writers who look back at the last half of this century when they started writing and the start of this one, when they are at their peak. Some, like Martin Amis in Pregnant Widow and Ian McEwan in Solar will choose to explore it from a highly personal perspective. Others, such as Jonathan Franzen in Feedom or even Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad will take a broader perspective. Grant clearly belongs in that latter category, but she brings a highly personal perspective that demands respect.

Consider this quote from relatively late in the book when the characters are aging and can look back, (but it gives nothing away) as a definition of Grant’s over-arching purpose:

Stephen could not get out of his mind how lucky they had been: himself, Andrea, Ivan and all their other friends. The sun had risen on them and had stayed all this time on their faces. Their purpose was to fulfil the ultimate destiny of the human race.

He was fifty-five years old and for the first time he understood that nothing bad had ever happened to him. He lived in a house worth a fortune with his wife of thirty years. His children’s lives had worked out, no-one was on drugs or in prison, no-one had died of Aids. Everyone he knew led a nice life and on and on it was all supposed to go.

So, let’s go back to the start and what produced that situation. Stephen, born in America in 1946, is the central character of the novel, an LA boy born of a Polish immigrant and Cuban emigre, born as WWII ended. We meet him in the opening pages as a young boy outside the fur storage depot in LA where his father works:

‘This coat belongs to Miss Bacall,’ his father told him, in his immigrant accent. ‘This one to Miss Hayworth. The animal was a living thing, a beautiful creature that once was. And only a beautiful woman deserves to wear a coat like this.’

That dream of the American melting pot will melt of its own accord. Stephen is, luckily, brilliant and wins a Rhodes scholarship, just as the Vietnam draft begins to send his generation off to their deaths. An “uncle” ( a real one, but, even more important, one with union connections) has got him into the seamen’s union (you have to be of the generation to know that this was the most mobbed-up of all the unions, teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa a distant second). While Oxford sends him a ticket, Stephen’s father cashes it in and the scholar ships to England on the SS United States as a working cabin boy and meets, from above decks, Bill Clinton, another Rhodes scholar, also on his way to Oxford. Okay, Grant is stretching credibility here (and that will continue) but she does it with a tongue-in-cheek smartness that is charming, not annoying.

It is in Oxford that we are introduced to the conflicts that will define the generation. Academically brilliant, but socially inept, Stephen is in “college” when peering out the window he spies the “girls” next door (we are about two months from “girls” being a totally sexist description). They are academic “hippies” in outrageous costume (but they have wonderful breasts) and, less than 24 hours later, he and Andrea are lovers. They will be together for the rest of their lives — for those youngsters reading this, yes, stuff like this did happen, but not often.

That too is not a spoiler (you really do want to read how it happened) but from then on this is a novel about how the children who were born in the five years after WWII cope with both coming of age and adapting (or not) to that maturity. Andrea comes from true British stock, Stephen from its American mirror — this is a novel about how those two contradictions come to resolution, or the lack thereof.

I won’t give away too many details but Grant’s interest is in how — and why — all that potential for change in the 1960s never came to pass, at least for this group and, arguably, an entire generation. Stephen and Andrea marry, they have kids and their life settles into a routine. Ever present is the feeling that however much success in the present might look like, so much potential has been overlooked. Or maybe — and for me this is the most powerful theme of the novel — only so much potential existed.

This is a theme that is starting to show up a lot in fiction and I do expect to see more — on the personal side, Amis and McEwan; on the more global aspect authors such as Franzen. For those of us who grew up in the generation (Stephen and I are virtually contemporaries) it offers much fodder for thought. For those readers who are younger, don’t dismiss it — this is the life that your parents lived.

I don’t think that Grant completely succeeds. She opens up so many stories in the past of both Stephen and Andrea (and I have included no spoilers here) that the end of the novel becomes too much tidying-up and not enough showing potential. This is a portrayal of ordindary lives, lived in an extraordinary age — alas, for me at least, the ordinary took precedence over the extraordinary.

Don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book — and I will say that this review is merely a gloss over some very intriguing plot and story lines that are included in it, many of which are worthy of a book themselves and have not even been mentioned here. I should acknowledge that my impression of Grant’s last novel has increased as time progressed; I can’t help but think that a year or two from now this one, also, will have risen in my evaluation. It has those kind of seeds.

(Note: While We Had It So Good has been released in the UK, its North American release is not scheduled until late April. If you like Linda Grant and the description of the book, I’d say it is worth making a UK order.)

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14 Responses to “We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This one has my attention for its themes. The world is changing rapidly–some good, some bad, and the novel seems to address that idea through its characters.

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how some novels have more staying power over the years, and it’s not always the ones we expect. Nick Hornby’s How to be Good falls into that category for me.

    So… and I have to ask this question since you mention that you are about the same age as Stephen: how do you feel about the title? Is it true?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: A great question about the title and, yes, it is a fair summary of both a) the book and b) the life. Those of us born in those years have had it so lucky that we should be ashamed. (To wit: I never once applied for a job or a promotion — and when I left the conventional work force I was the publisher of a daily newspaper with a circulation of 130,000. People kept dying — or retiring — in front of me.) And I think, for me at least, that is the most powerful theme of the novel (John Self’s review which also went up today goes into more details of the story — mine cruises at 25,000 feet, his is much better on the details from 5,000).

    I was a Canadian leftie in the 1960s so we did shelter our share of American draft-dodgers on their way to another life. What I remember more than anything else was how “ordinary” they were — that’s not a criticism. We knew the political US types well, but these guys were just scared kids who didn’t want to die. It broke my heart (well not really, we were trying to overthrown the system) almost every time one of them came through.

    Where Grant’s novel is very strong (and I think will live on with me) is that she captures that “ordinariness” and then extends it into what turned out to be a pretty good life for the characters involved. Her characters are not the Abbie Hoffmans or whatever — they are versions of those kids who stopped in my house for a few days because they felt they had to leave their country (as much as they loved it). And they managed to produce a pretty good life. That’s why I think the novel will get better in my memory as time progresses.

    There is an American strain of fiction along the same line but it tends to centre more on the war experience itself (Patrick O’Brien for sure and, while I haven’t read it, Matterhorn apparently). I think what We Had It So Good does is raise the question of just what this generation lucked into — and maybe what it didn’t succeed in realizing.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    How does the ‘ordinariness’ mesh with the inclusion of Clinton?

    The title and the review reminded me of Fay Weldon’s recent novel Chalcot Crescent. I am including a quote here as it touches on the same sort of idea (We had it so good) but from a different angle:

    “Then came the Labour Government of 1997 and the Consumer Decade–as it is now called–and by 2007 the house next door to me sold for £1.85 million. Then came the Shock of 2008, the Crunch of 2009-11–when house prices plummeted and still no-one was buying–then the brief recovery of 2012, when at least properties began to change hands again, though our friendly European neighbours became less friendly, the US embraced protectionism and the rest of the world had no choice but to follow. And then came the Bite, which is now, and with it a coalition and thoroughly dirigiste government which keeps its motives and actions very much to itself. And though a few major figures in the financial world went to prison, the nomenklatura still ride the middle lanes, have their mortgages paid for them and do very well, thank you. The rest of us are presumably moving to the outskirts: fifty years on and we are back to where we began. I reckon I had the best of it.”

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The Clinton reference is pretty much just a clever aside that Grant does not really exploit. As for the Weldon quote, this novel is more about how the privileged generation “got by” (although their house also zooms in value). Indeed, unlike Franzen, there is remarkably little about things like Thatcherism and so on.

  5. Lee Monks Says:

    Guy: I agree about the Hornby novel. It’s by a million miles his best work and, whilst no masterpiece, is the most succesful distillation of his concerns and a valuable piece of work.

  6. Guy Savage Says:

    Nice to know I’m not alone. I didn’t appreciate the novel nearly enough when I finished it, but I find it very, very relevant in retrospect.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ll mark the Hornby down as one to consider in the future, based on these comments.

    • Guy Savage Says:

      Have you read any Hornby, Kevin?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I haven’t. I’ve always felts I’m older than his target audience and mentally filed him with Coupland and Eggers as a writer who would probably frustrate me more than anything else.

        • Guy Savage Says:

          How to be Good doesn’t fall into the singles angst category. I think it’s very relevant. Reminds me of a quote from Lambert’s novel Little Monsters: There’s a difference between doing good and being good (paraphrasing here as I don’t have the book in front of me).

  8. John Self Says:

    Kevin, I wouldn’t categorise Hornby with Coupland or Eggers in that I think his writing is ‘straighter’ and less playful than theirs, so less likely to frustrate you – though equally it may not satisfy you. I’ve read two or three of his books and like Lee and Guy, I rate How to Be Good highly among them.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Since I haven’t read any of his books, whatever mental filing system I’ve been using is suspect. Perhaps a greater influence is that this is the first time I can recall getting advice or reading something that says I should try him. I will give How To Be Good a try.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ll be really interested to see what you think of it. I don’t care for Eggers btw.

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