‘We Had It So Good’ by Linda Grant

The first thing to say about this book is that I thoroughly enjoyed it; once started, if I put it down to do something else, it  niggled at the corner of my attention until I went back to it and read it through to the end.

But now I’ve finished it, analysing what I liked about it, and what compelled me to keep returning to it, is a tricky thing.

Stephen Newman is a first generation American, son of exiles, a Polish Jew and a Cuban, who pitches up at Oxford in the late 1960s as a Rhodes scholar.  Entering into a marriage of convenience with English girl Andrea to dodge the draft when sent down for defacing a library book, he lands on his feet, getting a job in the BBC and a house in Islington, and generally living just on the edge of many of the significant events of the last 40 years.

He’s an archetype of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, rejecting the values of his parents’ generation, he manufactures LSD, lives in a squat, becomes a parent, and gradually morphs into comfortable middle age, albeit one plagued by hypochondria.  He’s smug and lucky, with very little self awareness or curiosity.  His story tracks the abandonment of revolutionary ideas into parenthood, through early retirement to an embattled fear of the violence of engendered by the attacks on the World Trade Centre and London Transport.

The 1960s radicals wanted change, but not that sort of change.

There is a satirical edge in that Stephen and his contemporaries grow up to join the BBC or work in advertising or as a psychotherapist.  Grace, the one who clings to the adventures and chaos they all espoused in the ’60s, is ragged and old before her time, scrounging off the more financially secure as they approach retirement age.  Sell out or starve?

How much can we ever know about another person? is the question that keeps being asked.  They are the aggregation of stories they tell about themselves, and what if these stories are not even true?

Stephen doesn’t really know his father, has taken the stories he told at face value, giving them the nature of myth.  In turn the stories he tells about his youth, meeting Clinton on board ship, or trying on Marilyn Monroe’s fur, have the quality of fairy story to his children.  And as their lives develop, they keep part of themselves hidden from the generations who came before.

None of the characters is particularly likeable; we see their faults and their limitations all too clearly laid out before us, but how they negotiate the world is a rattling good story.

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  1. Jill Goldberg

     /  October 21, 2011

    Another one for my wish list. Thanks. I value your judgement (so far!…:) )

  2. I finished this book yesterday, and I thoroughly enjoyed it…. brilliant characterisation. However…. it reminded me of Freedom in that, as I neared the end, I wondered how the story would be brought to resolution, or a climax, one that would ultimately clarify for me: what is this book actually about? what point is the author making here? And that question sent me back to your blog, Rowena, to see what you thought… And I agree with what you say – cross generational secrets, the lofty (and rather righteous) ideals of youth followed by middle aged compromises…. all conveyed in diffuse, oblique and clever ways. Having just read (twice in quick succession) A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, I can only conclude that my preference in fiction is for a dramatic plot line rather than a diffuse theme. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed reading both Freedom and We Had it so Good, they won’t stay lodged in my psychological system in the way that Sense of an Ending will… or as “Kevin” and The Fifth Child have…!!

    • It is interesting what engages us the most isn’t it? I definitely enjoyed the tapestry effect in We Had it so Good, but it’s all in the execution : eg The Slap which had similar multi strand POVs bored me. We’re just going to have to disagree about ‘Kevin’ because one of the tedious things for me about it was how heavy handedly it signposted where it was going, so there was no climax. Having said all of that I think We had it So Good was all about the ride of reading it – I’m not sure that much of it will stick in my memory for that long, apart from the effect of the father’s ‘big’ lie.


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