I’m always excited about Linda Grant’s novels. I love When I lived in modern times so much, but less so on The Clothes On Their Backs. I wasn’t disappointed with Grant’s new offering We Had It So Good, it’s hilarious, it’s wicked, and it’s angry. There were many burst out laughters while reading this book on the train, so much so I have to work very hard to stifle my laughs and restraint my big grins lest I was seen as less sober in an all-serious morning rush hour train to London.
We Had It So Good is book about a multi-generational family. Stephen’s father came from Europe alone to New York, settled in California and spent his lifetime tending fur coats on Hollywood set. Stephen avoided Vietnam draft, received Rhodes scholarship, studied in Oxford where he met Andrea to avoid deportation on an unexpected curtail of his scholarship (defacing rare library collection) he conveniently married Andrea, has two children, Marianne and Max and they all live in London. While Stephen and Andrea have chosen the path of less resistance, settling in conventional marriage in an idyllic existence, with a Stephen giving up his lofty ambition and talent of food scientist and work with BBC producing documentaries, while Andrea works as a psychotherapist. Meanwhile, Andrea’s friend Grace has chosen to live a life opposite to the couple, traipsing around the globe, from Cuba to Europe, meeting men of dodgy credentials and live impoverish; this care-free lifestyle has an influence on Andrea’s daughter, Marianne, to take-up a dangerous living as a war zone photographer while brother Max is deaf and shows off his magic tricks whenever he can.
The multiple characters add colours to this complex weave of multi-generational tales. They are flawed and irritating, I find myself relating to many characters at one time. The story is raw, harsh, brutal, it hits you in the face with the realities of life but at the same time it is heartbreaking too. There are many unforgettable scenes that stay on my mind such as scenes of Stephen accompanying his elderly father to Eastern Europe; Grace has an unusual request to ask of her father that sends chill to my spine; Marianne’s shock to realise her lover has deleted his mailbox and she no longer be able to get in touch; Stephen’s homecoming to his parents’ home; Stephen’s reluctance to be near his dying wife as the potential loss and fear has paralysed him but one that I found unforgivable etc..
Throughout the lives of the characters, the major current affairs was playing out in the background, the Bosnian war, the advent of Internet and Google, the financial crisis, the rise of food price….
We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts. It is a contrast between England and America; the lives of parents and children; reason and emotion; the past and the future; the old and the new; living in the comfort of the known and unknown (living in the edges). It tells of the good life that is made possible by the earlier generations who had paid the price in war and nation building.
Some of my favourite quotes amongst the other longer ones, which I omit, which made me laugh:
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 (inEngland), the continuous uncovering of the past, history’s insistence on not getting out of the way, was depressing. – page 13
He was a shallow person, Ivan, but a loyal friend. Shallow people, Stephen thought, can be very good at heart. – page 340
Grace put no one but herself first. Perhaps it was an unhealthy extreme, her life, the way she lived, but Andrea admired her. She had mastered the art of absolute freedom. This is what I do, Andrea thought. I teach women to be free, even if they are, like me, in a marriage with children. You can still be a feminist when you’re married. – page 116
You may have noticed my review has lost its focus. This is what good book does to me: Makes me want to ramble on incoherently about what I think are the fantastic bits about the book. Personally, I think the book is about personal choices in life that we made that changed us beyond recognition from adolescence to old age. As a woman, whether we chose to put ourselves first or other people first, there is no one choice which is more superior than the other. Whether we chose to live in one country and not the next, there is a trade-off. There comes a time in our lives when all dreams die and we settle in complacency, we grow old and fall sick and we are left to reflect if “we had it so good” or not. We strive to live good but if life doesn’t pan out quite the way we want it, I’ll be the first to say: As long as you are happy, as long as there is no regret, no one tells you that you haven’t live well.
One can expect humorous family tales, difficult questions and thought provoking read from Linda Grant. Not quite 5-star as the ending wasn’t that good in my opinion, but this book is very close up there with When I lived in modern times.
Paperback. Publisher: Virago Press 2012; Length: 344 pages; Setting: North London.Source: Reading Battle Library. Finished reading at: 23rd March 2012.
Isabel Costello:The novel gains in emotional intensity in the second half – Marianne’s impossible love affair touched me the most and could have made a book of its own and yes, I did begin to warm to Stephen when he reconnects with his elderly father. The conclusion about the parent-child relationships, most of them somehow dysfunctional, seems to be that all we know of our parents is what they tell us, which may not be true. And even if it is true, we may not believe it. The last few chapters have a contemplative, elegiac quality that I found beautiful and moving. At 60, it’s largely through loss that Stephen finally realises just how good he’s had it for so long; for him getting to that point has been a long journey but it’s hardly been a struggle.
Nomad Reader: It’s a unique humor, but as I read, I laughed out loud as many times as I said wow. As I sorted through the marked passages in my Kindle, I realized almost all of them are profound within the pages of the novel, but taken out of the context of the characters, the passages aren’t as moving. I’m surprised this novel didn’t make this year’s Orange Prize longlist, but I have my fingers crossed it will make the Booker Prize longlist (announced July 26th!)
The verdict: This novel moved me as both a wonderful work of literary writing and as a wonderful story. I enjoyed the political sensibilities and the sense of history. In short, I loved it, and I am eager to read all of Linda Grant’s novels.
Kevin from Canada: Don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book — and I will say that this review is merely a gloss over some very intriguing plot and story lines that are included in it, many of which are worthy of a book themselves and have not even been mentioned here. I should acknowledge that my impression of Grant’s last novel has increased as time progressed; I can’t help but think that a year or two from now this one, also, will have risen in my evaluation. It has those kind of seeds.