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[539] We Had It So Good – Linda Grant


” I keep thinking of all the people I’ve known in London, all these years of living here. They pass through your life and you have got old and they must have got old, but if you saw them you’d cry, because you’d understand for the first time how old you are, and that it’s all long gone and we didn’t treasure it. We thought there was no way it would not last forever, together with our hair. ” (78)

We Had It So Good is a rich, multilayered novel that spans half a century, beginning in the 1960s, and entwining three generations’ secrets and longings. Young and ambitious Stephen Newman, born and raised in a Cuban-Polish immigrant family in Los Angeles, earns his ticket to postgraduate study in Oxford on a scholarship. His father works in a cold-storage warehouse that takes care of Hollywood stars’ fur coats. Some of Stephen’s most savored and vivid memories include wearing Marilyn Monroe’s mink behind his father’s back.

There was something not entirely adult about her husband, she thought. He retained a boyishness he should have long abandoned. It was her theory that in all marriages there is one person who is the grown up and the other who is the child, and she knew which role she fulfilled in this particular partnership. (139)

His promising career in Oxford is compromised, not by the surreptitious enterprise in making narcotics in the lab, but by the deforming of a library book. At the same time, his draft papers for Vietnam arrive, so out of convenience he marries Andrea, who happens to be his girlfriend at the time. The stale and stagnant life is Oxford is replaced by one that is characterized by poverty. Andrea takes up the job as a chambermaid and he a freelance science writer. They seem to find happiness in a communal squat in spite of being poor—and they remain faithful and married—to the utter surprise of their children who, in their adulthood, have grown somewhat estranged.

She felt a dismal failure both as a mother and as a therapist that her daughter told her nothing about her life, that her teenage bounce and gusto had been replaced by a reserve and secrecy, as if she was tending to some inner flame. (213)

The novel is a scrutiny of marriage and family; and although it captures the changing times, Grant never loses sights of the everyday details that define her characters. Through thick and thin Stephen and Andrea stay married, each trying to cope with their knot of anxiety. Time passes. The bright promise of the future darkens. Stephen feels trapped in Europe and longs for a different life; Andrea ruminates the thought that she shouldn’t have run her husband’s life. Both are stricken by the apprehension of their mortality.

We Had It So Good is a book that makes one live in it. It depicts how we struggle to come to terms with the mediocrity of lives, the unfulfilled dreams, the misplaced aspirations, as age takes the gloss off our dreams. Despite some slight clunkiness and slowness, Grant is dextrous in capturing the smallest moment of a character, as births and deaths, unions and ruptures, scatter through the pages with both the intensity and the ruggedness of real life. Sometimes life is like a series of banal accidents for the characters. There exists a vague sense of moral ambiguity to the story: it’s almost as if the couple should feel guilty for how good they have had it.

344 pp. Virago UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

3 Responses

  1. I loved your review of Grant’s book! So well written – it was itself amazing.

    I’m heading off to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Bali on Feb 28. Wanting to read novels of the area – best I’ve found so far have been Deep Night and Vulture Peak. Any more ideas – or anything on Bali?

    Appreciate your consideration of my request and realize that you may not have time to answer personal requests but wanted you to know how I appreciated the Grant review.

    Nicky Mendenhall


  2. Hi Nicky,

    I’m excited about your upcoming trip to Asia! In addition to what you have acquired, I would recommend:

    The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee (Hong Kong)
    Gweilo by Martin Booth (Hong Kong; Memoir)
    Frangrant Harbor by John Lanchester (Hong Kong)
    Gentleman in the Parlour by Somerset Maugham (Burma, Thailand, malaysia; Travelogue)
    Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osbourne (Thailand; Travelogue)
    The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (Vietnam and Hong Kong)
    Bangkok 8 by John Burdett (Thailand; Thriller)
    The Bronze Bell by Stirling Silliphant (Bali Indoesia)
    Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw (Bali Indonesia)

    When you’re in Bangkok, and if time permits, check into Asia Books (a local Thailand bookstore). They have a huge selection on Thai interests.

  3. This sounds like just the sort of book that would be a hit with my book club and make for lively discussion.

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