Linda Grant was the surprise of the Booker 2008 season for me: her novel The Clothes on their Backs was the best on the shortlist and, in my opinion, should have won. Inevitably, then, I wanted to read her new book.
We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts: England and America; parents and children; reason and emotion; the past and the future; stability and chaos. The elements are combined beguilingly. Stephen and Andrea Newman came of age in the 1960s and lived a life both strikingly individual and typical of the postwar generation. Stephen is American, the son of a Californian fur trader to the stars; tantalisingly close to glamorous fame but held at one remove from it (“they had assistants bring in the coats, the heat of the stars’ bodies still trapped in the linings”). Stephen dodges the Vietnam draft by moving to England, accompanied by a fellow Oxford Rhodes scholar destined to become much more famous. Coming from a young country where “if you peeled off the layers of the present you would find only more present,” he finds that in England, “history’s insistence on not getting out of the way was depressing.” So the present and future is what enthralls him, particularly when he meets redheaded Andrea and her friend Grace. He marries the former, while Grace will become an emblem of opposition (“Fuck this fucking country”), the obverse to Stephen and Andrea’s increasingly conventional marriage, seemingly idyllic and settled, but also built of constraint and compromise.
Their story is being told by Stephen and Andrea to their children Marianne and Max (the names seemingly chosen to emphasise their firm middle-class status). But when Marianne tells her brother that “you cannot rely on them for the truth. Parents, by definition, are liars,” we have some sympathy with her. Stephen’s account of the 1960s and 70s seems to veer too close to media shorthand rather than the particularity of lived experience: bare-breasted hippies, patchouli oil, bell-bottoms and cheesecloth shirts, loon pants and joss sticks. Is he really telling his children – and us – what he remembers?
Stephen and Andrea – and the rest of their generation – are not just parents but children too, and the strongest sections of the book are cross-generational exchanges. Stephen travels to eastern Europe with his elderly father; Grace has a particularly chilly encounter with her father which will indelibly mark her; Andrea must come to terms with the notion that people, even parents, can hold two contradictory impulses in their heads:
Once, Andrea overheard her mother say to the housekeeper, ‘If I had my time over again, I wouldn’t have had children. I’d have been fancy free.'” [Then,] seeing her standing by the door, said, ‘Don’t listen to me, Andy Pandy. I wouldn’t give you up for anything.’
This feeds into Andrea’s adult occupation of therapist, charged with “teaching her clients (particularly the women) that they were not responsible for the actions of other people.” Women “had no sense that they deserved to put themselves first and foremost.” And why should they, when Grace, the woman who does do that – “I’m in that room and no one has the address. However hard they look, they’ll never find me” – ends up suffering so? Meanwhile, as maturity and family take hold of Andrea and Stephen, they settle down for the long littleness of life: “Stephen can’t think of much to say about it. It was a period of growth followed by satisfactory consolidation.”
Yet in this “blur of middle age and child rearing,” there is much surprise and detail. Deafness, war, illusions; modern history, unexpected illness, the dismantling of a life. The details – on advertising, for example – sometimes look like research infodumps, but are elsewhere well assimilated and bring life to the characters (and the characters to life). Stephen, in an inspired sequence of scenes, uses Google to find out what has happened to people featured in the early sections of the book – and this adds a coat of entitlement to his characterisation, for who else but this easy-achieving generation would presume their old university pals had risen far enough in the world to be picked up easily by search engines 30 years on?
In the end, their high achievements mask their uneasy knowledge that their way in life was made easier by the sacrifices of their parents’ generation in war and depression. “We’ve had it made.” That, too, is the debt of every generation, and of any child to its parents. I said earlier that We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts, and it is also a book of two halves, where perhaps inevitably, the interest level rises considerably when things start going wrong for the golden couple in the second half. Neither successful and interesting careers, nor lucky buoyancy on a rising tide of house prices, can ultimately shield them when it’s their time to experience “the usual ineffable sadness of merely living.”