Review: We Had It So Good

Linda Grant’s ability to root her novels in particular eras is brilliantly evident in her new tale of materialism and loss

By Natasha Lehrer, February 7, 2011
Rolling Stones fans gather for the seminal Hyde Park concert, July 1969

Rolling Stones fans gather for the seminal Hyde Park concert, July 1969

By Linda Grant
Virago £14.99

In Linda Grant's We Had It So Good, her fifth and most assured novel, she displays an outstanding gift for excavating a great swathe of social history to reveal the delicate, deliberate human detail at its beating heart.

Stephen Newman, a first-generation, Polish-Jewish-Cuban American, has lived a life of fortunate ease. By winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford (arriving on the same boat as one Bill Clinton - a favourite trick of Grant's is to sprinkle her narrative with instantly recognisable, iconic figures or episodes which perfectly anchor the tale in its time), he escaped not only the Vietnam draft but also the eternal sunshine of suburban southern California, his parents and their immigrant neuroses.

Grant segues effortlessly from Stephen as a nine-year-old, when the novel opens --- trying on one of Marilyn Monroe's furs that his father is holding in his Los Angeles fur storage facility - to Oxford in the heyday of hippiedom, where the aspiring young scientist sets up a business manufacturing LSD before being sent down for defacing a library book.

The friendships that Stephen makes at Oxford follow him through the next 40 years, from a Belsize Park squat to a Highgate bedsit to a Georgian house in Islington. There is red-headed Andrea, who marries him so that he can stay in the country; Ivan the Marxist; and beautiful, cruel Grace. Only Grace retains her fierce anarchist commitment, living her life as an adventurer, constantly searching for new experiences, rejecting the comforts of home. The others are soon entrapped by the ease and opportunities that come their way.

Stephen, a failed scientist, makes BBC documentaries; Andrea becomes a psychotherapist; Ivan, cynical and opportunist but fantastically loyal (there's surprisingly little divorce among their friends), becomes an advertising executive. They are of the Guardian-reading chattering classes, smugly settled into a life that they didn't earn.

Stephen and Andrea have two children, Marianne and Max, both of them a little odd, not particularly academic, neither heading to follow their parents to Oxford. (Possibly the only false note in the novel is the lack of angst-ridden, self-justifying conversations about their decision to send their children to private schools.)

As he turns 50, Stephen, mouldering away at the BBC, is a whisper away from a nervous breakdown, and the September 11 attacks turn him into an obsessive, crazed inhabitant of the outer reaches of the internet, where he spends hours in hate-filled chatrooms listening to atrocious antisemitic chatter -- 9/11 turns him into a Jew.

As if to prove Marianne's bitter maxim that "parents, by definition, are liars", it turns out that Stephen's Jewish father has a secret. In fact, his whole life has been based on a lie. At the heart of this novel is the melancholy idea that we never truly know our parents or our children, or even ourselves. We do our best with the lies we tell. We try to believe our lives have meaning. When Grace ends up, homeless, penniless, living with Andrea and Stephen, rejecting their values but dependent on their wealth and kind-heartedness, the question arises: whose life has been better lived?

Grant's ambition has always raised her novels above the stuff of plot-driven family saga. We Had It So Good is hugely satisfying, bursting with ideas and speculation and brilliantly observed. Though not much happens: even the drama of 9/11 and of the 2007 London bombings take place offstage. The novel truly sparkles in its depiction of London, specifically north London, over the decades, its metamorphosis from the drab greyness of the 1970s to the ebullient, confident materialism of the new millennium.

There was perhaps one contemporary detail too many in the last chapter - a glancing reference to the destruction Bernard Madoff was about to wreak on his investors, a superfluous dig at the baby boomers' dreams of easy, moneyed retirement. But this is a tiny gripe about a thought-provoking novel that captures the zeitgeist unusually well.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer and critic. Linda Grant will discuss 'We Had It So Good' with Joan Bakewell at Jewish Book Week on Sunday March 6, and will also be in conversation with Shira Geffen about 'Tel Aviv Stories' on the same day

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011