Monday, July 4, 2011

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Stephen and Andrea Newman are the couple at the center of this family saga that spans three generations. Stephen, the son of Jewish immigrants to the USA, travelled to England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1968. He met Andrea at school and they made a life together in London.

Before their two children were born, Stephen and Andrea used to live in a communal squat house and for a while Stephen made LSD in his lab. These sorts of facts about their younger years seem totally outlandish to their children. Andrea says, "The past is a narrative, a story. You try to tell them but they don't believe you, you might as well relate the tale of Little Red Riding Hood." And yet there remain aspects of their children's lives of which Stephen and Andrea are also unaware.

It's a quiet story about ordinary, flawed people, living their lives as best they can manage. British author Linda Grant treats all of her characters here with loving compassion, more so than in her earlier novel, The Clothes on Their Backs. When I think back on what it is that makes me slightly less enthusiastic about The Clothes on Their Backs (in comparison), all I can pinpoint is that it felt less balanced... too much emphasis on clothing. Both books incorporate similar elements: Jewish immigrants; family secrets; clothing-related work or hobbies; and coming of age in the 70s in England.

Stephen suffers an existential crisis in his old age, but his longtime friend tells him, "You have to accept that we're all condemned to live in our own times, our own little piece of history. We've been terribly lucky, you wonder if the luck is bound to run out, but we've had it made." Living a good life - isn't that what we all want?

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