Virago, £17.99, 358pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
We Had It So Good, By Linda Grant
Friday 04 February 2011
The most exciting day of young Stephen Newman's life is trying on Marilyn Monroe's mink stole. In the warehouse where his father works, caring for movie stars' fur coats, Stephen sees what transformation a draped pelt brings, while "exercising his birthright, the American capacity to be reborn."
Son of a Polish Jewish immigrant and his Cuban refugee wife, Stephen becomes fascinated by science and wins a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He works his passage to embark on his new life. Once settled, he falls in with a flamboyant undergraduate trio.
There's Andrea, whom he marries to avoid the draft – red pre-Raphaelite hair, bad teeth and a talent for making things better. Andrea's best friend is beautiful, damaged Grace in her green stockings and ripped skirt. Grace's lover is the affable Ivan, flirting with Wilhelm Reich and the counter-culture.
Linda Grant's novel, with its multiple viewpoints, follows the trajectory of these baby boomers, a generation who were "born young and were going to stay young for ever because that was their privilege."
Their narrative proceeds against the background of Vietnam, Bosnia, 9/11 and 7/7, while drugs, scientific advances and the internet change the world. From their beginnings in a squat where they declare all property is theft, Stephen and Andrea end up the chattering-class owners of a £3-million house in Canonbury. Ivan, who once wanted to subvert capitalism, makes a fortune out of advertising and only Grace stays true to her Sixties ideals - itinerant, angry.
Their child-rearing years are a blur of pets, head lice and Cornish holidays. Stephen and Andrea's offspring scoff at their parents' anecdotes of sharing cakes with another Rhodes Scholar called Bill Clinton and conceiving their daughter Marianne below Karl Marx's monument. As their son Max says, "They are just stories they tell us to make us think that once upon a time they were interesting."
But they were interesting. At least to each other. A Californian, Stephen is a child of the sunshine state, brought up within a loving family. Andrea, whose earliest memories are of being terrified by fog and crows, has had to fend for herself. Her hotelier parents neglected her emotionally and cast her adrift as soon as they were able. Stephen, becoming a BBC science documentary-maker, believes in the future and in problems having solutions. Psychotherapist Andrea favours intuition, the talking cure and unravelling the past.
We Had It So Good becomes more satisfying as it progresses. To begin with it reads rather like a list of things which happen in order to get the characters to the bit that really interests Grant – their middle-age. That's when the self-indulgent, uneventful lives of Stephen and Andrea start to feel real.
It would be easy to ridicule these children of '68, but Grant doesn't. For all his cleverness, Stephen has kept his innocence. Having taken early retirement, he surfs the net, recoiling from the hatred directed at Americans and Jews. And he's haunted by the possibility that his parents' generation, proving its mettle in the war, was more interesting than his. "What did we accomplish?" he asks.
His widowed father, still going strong at 90, nurses a secret which will shake Stephen's sentimental view of his background. Even Stephen's children seem tougher, more cynical. They don't want to make the world a better place. Marianne, a war photographer, and Max, a magician, accept it the way it is. In his mid-fifties Stephen realises that "nothing bad had ever happened to him". When it does, he's reduced to screaming: "Why her? Why my wife?"
Grant's sentences can be over-long and she switches tenses disconcertingly. But she's compassionate and perceptive. Stephen and Andrea marry for convenience but grow devoted. That is what made it so good. Love is what matters, Grant tells us. Marianne cannot love herself until she falls in love. And even unloveable Grace, in the sad and moving ending, shows that she's not a total monster in her final acts of tenderness towards Andrea.
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