WE HAD IT SO GOOD by Linda Grant

Book Quote:

“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 supposed to go.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (APR 30, 2011)

The sixties generation broke free of the duty-bound rigors of their Depression era parents and the social constraints of materialism, creating a counterculture of hippies dedicated to revolutionary change. As a secular Jewish middle-aged baby boomer, I can well relate to Linda Grant’s portraiture of aging boomers that once embraced the youth and change and idealism of a new and outrageous culture of acid rock music, heady hallucinogens, diversity, and sexual freedoms.

Grant is the British author of Orange prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), about a displaced London Jew who heads for Palestine, and The Clothes On Their Backs (2008), about a daughter of Jewish immigrants, which was short-listed for the Booker prize. Moreover, Grant is an award-winning journalist who closely observes the effect of a social climate on its inhabitants. In her latest novel, she creates an atmospheric arc that extends from the radical sixties and moves through historical landmarks and landmines such as Bosnia, 9/11, 7/7, and the Internet.

The novel succeeds with sublime precision, avoiding soapboxing and sentimental ruts. Its power arises partly from the narrative form that deepens with the accretion of detail and the passage of years. Chapters alternate with multiple viewpoints of various characters, but don’t expect an equal distribution or conventional symmetry of voices. Grant intentionally changes tenses and perspectives throughout, sporadically keeping us in the dark about who is talking. The dissonant intervals bear close attention, which heighten the reading experience, so it appears that the author had a purpose in her contract with the reader. There was something Stravinsky-like about its force, pushing the boundaries of convention with its provocative rhythm and unpredictable turns.

The first half of the novel lacks a visible anchor. It roams forward at a slight remove, but there’s an assured and poised undercurrent that keeps the reader trusting the author. There isn’t a lot of plot action in this multigenerational epic; the big events are a background for the more interstitial tale of people that revolted against their parents’ ideals and desperately sought self-realization, while grappling with apathy and complacency and the succor or rancor of their childhoods.

Stephen Newman, the central character, a high-strung hypochondriac and secular Jew from California, born in 1946, is the son of a Polish Jewish immigrant and a Cuban refugee mother. He meets a trio of intellectual hippies while studying science at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1968, and they all become lifelong friends. After some unexpected downturns, he marries one of them, the Pre-Raphaelite looking Andrea, in order to avoid the Vietnam draft, and finds love and contentment in Islington, carving out a dignified career making documentaries for the BBC and raising their two children.

Andrea, an intuitive offbeat beauty with crooked teeth and luxuriant, tawny hair, finds her niche as a psychotherapist. Her best friend, Grace, the astonishing beauty with a plump trust fund and deep psychic wounds, is a rebel even for the sixties, and globe-trots from one country to another with her pent-up rage and hand-made clothes. Ivan becomes a successful investor and godfather to the Newman’s children, Marianne and Max.

So what happens here? Is this a cautionary tale, homage to the sixties, a character study of self-realization against a backdrop of social change? Grant illuminates the often frustrating dissatisfaction of ideals–how time eradicates the hope and potential of a generation that hung onto the promise of youth.

“How can I be fifty, he asked himself, when I only just began?” Stephen had it so good–or did he? His free-floating anxiety about the choices he has made and the promises to himself he didn’t fulfill careen like a bad twitch through his soul. Theirs was the generation of eternal youth, and that was their privilege. They were supposed to be exceptional, not settled into routine.

As the story unfolds and expands to include three generations, the novel becomes a map and a mirror of the human condition, of each generation’s desire to break out of the mold of their parents and embark on a trajectory of trail-blazing success, or maybe just to become invisible. The metaphor of illusion is brilliantly summoned in the chosen professions of Max and Marianne.

Beyond the current, quick pace of everyday life in the millennium and a tendency to conclude, respond, and move on with instantaneous speed and recovery, this is a rare book that will germinate in the mind of the observant reader after the closing pages. Its esteem rises with each passing day of reflection. Like the lush and dense gardens that bloom between its pages, this story grows as it is tended and cared for with time and patience. What is apparent at first becomes a portal to more, and continues to nurture the hearkened soul of the dedicated reader.

“…no one wants to open the doors of perception anymore, acid was about revelation, about the vision of what lies beyond the rim of the knowable, it’s a drug for revolutionaries, and they have no interest in revolution. And the other thing…it takes up so much bloody time, eight hours minimum and then a day or two to recover. If I had to market it I’d aim the product exclusively at retirees.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (April 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore

The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle



April 30, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Contemporary, Family Matters

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