Some people believe that life consists of a series of problems with solutions, whereas others believe that there are simply situations which have their own internal life and momentum. This difference is an important one in We Had it So Good by Linda Grant. Stephen Newman is American, and an example of the first type of person, while his wife Andrea is English and an example of the second. Stephen and Andrea meet while at Oxford University, and embark on a marriage (in part of convenience) which is at the core of this book. Stephen and Andrea are very different – (“You fall for what you do not know, he figured out eventually. But you do fall: the loss of balance is the point.”) – and this allows Linda Grant to explore some very different perspectives during the course of the book.
We Had it So Good follows Stephen, Andrea and their friends Ivan and Grace from their initial meeting over a span of five decades or so. We see how their lives develop as they age, and how their initial idealism evolves (in most cases) to the inevitable compromises of middle class life in London. There is a particular focus on their relationships with their parents and children. One of the key themes of the book is how little we truly know or understand about the lives of our parents, and this is illustrated by the experiences of three successive generations.
We Had it So Good deals largely with a certain privileged subset of English life – Oxford, London, middle class communal living, dinner parties – which some readers might find a little irritating, but the novel also ranges widely, taking in relatively poor Cuban-Jewish Los Angeles, Bosnia and Islamic terrorism. The breadth of the novel, both temporal and geographical, means that it never drags and it is never clear where it will end up. Much is made of the differences between successive generations – each generation thinks that the preceding one (or the next one) has achieved great things, while they have had great opportunities but have ultimately wasted them.
Linda Grant writes very well. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, where she deals with the childhood, student experiences and early adult life of the main characters, up until the end of the 1960s or so. I found the later stages of the book, which deal with the characters coming to terms with ageing and ultimately death, less convincing and engaging. This worries me a little, since the parts I enjoyed dealt with an era which I missed, while the parts I found less convincing were focussed on an era I have lived through. However, most readers should find that they can identify to an extent with one of the main voices in this novel, and will be made to think by the other perspectives which are presented. Overall, an engaging family saga with serious intent.
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