Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good is the first title selected for the Virago Book Club; it is fair to say that this novel would not be on my radar otherwise, but I am very glad to have read it. We Had It So Good follows three generations of the same family during the second half of the last century and the first years of the current one; the focus is particularly on the baby boomers of the family, but there are themes and patterns that run across the experiences of the different generations.
Stephen Newman is an American who comes to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship in the 1960s, but is expelled on the discovery of his drug-manufacturing activities. Not wishing to be drafted to Vietnam, the only way that Stephen can avoid having to return to the US is to marry Andrea, the English girl he met and fell in love with at Oxford. Though this is rather a marriage of convenience, it lasts; the couple move to London, at first living in an ‘urban commune,’ as their friend Ivan puts it (‘Don’t think of it as a squat,’ p. 58), but eventually making successful careers, he as a maker of science programmes for the BBC, she as a psychotherapist. They have children, Max and Marianne, whose lives come to have their own ups and downs – then Stephen finds himself in his fifties, wondering what happened to the kid he still feels he is.
Stephen is the fulcrum of Grant’s novel, though the actual structure is episodic, moving between viewpoint characters without a fixed pattern (there are a couple of confusing points where viewpoint shifts within a scene, but this is a minor issue). The effect is a series of moments building up into a whole – and, happily, We Had It So Good works well at both those levels.
Grant captures some very interesting and effective moments on the page. Sometimes, this is a result of her description; here, for example, is the young Stephen reflecting on his differing perceptions of the US and UK :
Stephen felt that he had come from a country so brand new that if you peeled off the layers of the present you would only find more present. Here, the continuous uncovering of the past, history’s insistence of not getting out of the way, was depressing. It reminded you that soon you would be bones under the ground. One day you might be a fossil unearthed and on display in the Pitt Rivers museum. (p. 13)
At other times, there are striking contrasts within scenes. One example is when Grace (one of Andrea’s and Stephen’s friends from Oxford who embraced fully their friendship group’s 1960s ideals, and has spent her life travelling abroad) visits for Christmas. Young Marianne has built up a mental image of Grace as an exotic, almost fantastical figure, with wonderful stories to tell; it’s quite a shock to her (and us) to then meet Grace and find instead a weathered woman who insults Marianne as soon as looking at her.
Shortly after this, there’s another particularly strong scene where Max performs a magic show for the assembled friends and family, and his parents’ differing reactions really illuminate their characters: he’s absorbed in trying to work out how the tricks are done, whilst she asks herself if Max’s desire to perform means she didn’t give him enough attention when he was younger. I find these and other observations of Grant’s very acute.
At the broader structural level, We had It So Good highlights the turn of the generational wheel, and how life never quite turns out the way one expects. When Stephen looks back on his life and wonders how he got from there to here, from his youthful dreams to a middle-age which is comfortable, but still middle age, we might wonder the same – though each of his and Andrea’s decisions though life make sense at the time, we have experienced them as episodes, and so have the same sense (though for a different reason) of not understanding the complete journey.
In addition to this, the tales of the younger Andrea’s and Stephen’s exploits seem unreal to their children, who can’t reconcile what they hear with the image they have of their parents. Yet the same goes for Stephen’s parents, aspects of whose earlier lives are as unreal to him; and there is a sense that Marianne and Max are living stories that will in turn seem extraordinary to their children. So it goes on. We Had It So Good is fine both as a series of snapshots, and a larger portrait of life. And, in Linda Grant, I have another author whose work I should investigate further.