Having seen some good reviews of Linda Grant’s new book, We Had It So Good, when it was published earlier this year in the UK, I was excited to get an advance e-galley through Simon and Schuster’s Galley Grab program in anticipation of the US release on April 26. I’d not read any of Grant’s books before, but I’ve wanted to ever since her last novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
We Had It So Good is on one level a multigenerational family tale, that family being the Newmans: Stephen, the American who came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the 60s; Andrea, the Oxford student who marries Stephen partly so he could stay in England after being dismissed from Oxford; Marianne, the elder daughter who becomes a photographer in Eastern European war zones; and Max, the younger son whose childhood fascination with magic tricks turns into an unlikely career. There’s a sense, though, in which this family represents the passage of time between generations, with a focus on the generation that came of age in the sixties.
Oxford and London of the 1960s are presented as places of big ideas, where people talk about defying “the man” and creating a different kind of society. Ivan, the ideological leader of Stephen and Andrea’s group of friends, puts forward one idea after another, telling Stephen,
“Look, man, the sixties are a carnival of ideas, we throw a lot of stuff in the air and some of it flies. Most of the rest falls back to earth, burns out. The decade that’s coming is the one when we catch hold of all the air-bound concepts, we take them by the tail and see where they carry us.”
It’s no surprise that most of the ideas Stephen and Andrea’s compatriots throw in the air don’t actually fly. Ivan himself ends up working in advertising. Marianne and Max can’t even believe that their parents lived in a London squat, manufactured acid, or did anything of interest. Stephen and Andrea are the picture of convention, perhaps even of selling out. They’re comfortable, but they haven’t lived up to their promise. (This promise is in part embodied in Stephen’s fellow Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton.) And so their comfortable life carries with it a taint of discontent and disappointment, and in the end, the comfort they’ve chosen doesn’t protect them or their children from the pain they’ve attempted to avoid.
The only person who stays true to the sixties life is Andrea’s friend Grace; her wanderings—all recounted in the first person, as if to therapist Andrea—represent the alternative to the conventional life that Stephen, Andrea, and Ivan have chosen. But she’s also a cautionary tale, as her life is never a happy one. Grace’s voice keeps the book from feeling like a romantic look back at the sixties. I almost couldn’t help put admire Grace for standing by her convictions, but mostly I just thought she was daffy and needed help, a lot of help.
The sixties generation at the core of the book influences and is influenced by the generations before and behind them, but that influence only extends so far. Every generation must assert its own independence. So the young man whose father proudly tells of how he came to America looking for opportunity eventually returns to the old country. The little boy whose parents take him in for surgery to correct his hearing loss becomes oppressed by noise and ends up marrying a woman who is deaf. Even the younger nation that is the US attempts to disentangle itself from the older one. But the choice to rebel or merely to step back still means letting the past have a say, even if the past’s message is one of what not to do. And as it turns out, the one character who makes almost a complete break with the preceding generation is, in his old age, haunted by the world of his birth.
I was especially intrigued by the cultural differences between the US and UK that come up several times in the book. Frequently, these moments are played for comedy, as when Andrea experiences her first barbecue and Stephen first learns about Guy Fawkes Day and wonders why anyone would remember an event that was before the Mayflower. What interests me more, however, is whether the idea embedded in the title of the novel applies to the US in the same was that it does to the UK. Late in the book, Ivan says,
We’ve been terribly lucky, you wonder whether the luck is about to run out, but we’ve had it made. I don’t know what we could have done to transform the world, when it had already been transformed for us. The people who won the war and made the peace did that. It’s a hard fact to swallow, for us I mean, our generation.
Although the sixties weren’t completely dissimilar in the US and the UK, I wonder if this idea of being so lucky really translates. Young adults in the US in the sixties faced the specter of the Vietnam draft, which Stephen neatly escapes and hardly thinks of again. I can barely think of the sixties in the US without thinking of Vietnam, the protests against it, and the ensuing violence. I don’t think this difference should prevent the book from being interesting to US audiences. The generational tensions explored in the book are certainly universal, and even if those elements weren’t present, there’s pleasure to be had in reading about different nation’s experiences of similar eras.