• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,082,210 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[677] Capital – John Lanchester

1capital

” Middle-class mediocrity. Suburban mediocrity. A culture that openly worships the average. A society which allows the idea of the elite to exist only in relation to sport. A culture of fat people, lazy people, people who watch reality television, people who aren’t interested in anything except celebrity . . . ” (Ch.34, p.178)

Capital follows a small cross-section of the inhabitants of one south London street, Pepys Road, which was built for lower middle-class families in the late 19th century. But when the story begins in 2007, the value of each house has risen so spectacularly that the people who currently own the properties are all rich, and have done much enlargement of attics and basements to further increase values. The settled citizens come to interact with the newcomers who are trying to negotiate a place for themselves in British society.

People did not want to be anonymous. More: anonymity was one of the things that they liked least about life in the modern world. They wanted to be known, they wanted to be named . . . (Ch.39, p.207)

The title is a pun. As this layered title goes, there is Capital as money, and there is capital as London and the fact that, to Lanchester, the first defines the second adds an admirable tidiness to the layers. But, unfortunately, these layers hardly overlap and remain independent for almost the entire 500 pages of the book.

At the center is investment banker Roger Yount, whose dashed bonus would compromise his luxurious life style and fail to sustain his selfish, shopaholic wife’s discretionary expenditure. He is eventually sacked for gross negligence of his deputy’s embezzlement. The Younts suddenly becomes poor. There’s a dying old lady who is unaware of how much the value of her home has sky-rocketed. Among the social circle also are a Polish man working as a builder, a well-educated Hungarian girl who takes a job as the Younts’ nanny, a Senegalese soccer player being groomed for stardom at great expense, a hated local traffic warden, who is a political refugee from Zimbabwe with a university degree, and can support herself only by paying for a forged work permit. Then there’s Ahmad Kamal from Lahore, who owns a small general shop at the end of the road. His clever, computer-smart brother Shahid is arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. These immigrants all have to shove aside their humiliation and adapt themselves to what is required of the society. They nonetheless have better survival instincts than the luckier property-owning inhabitants and more industrious than the natives.

Yet Lanchester’s microcosm device of a single street with its diverse socio-economic tiers falls far short of its intent. Although he does convey the shift in the community’s perceptions and values tied to the infectious heart of greed and aspiration, the links between his huge cast of characters are too tenuous, too fragile. Often the link is made simply through an event rather than through the complex social connections that knit a city together. Even the one promising common link to bring all the characters together—the long-running campaign of harassment, postcards, graffiti, and videos afflicting the houses, is dismissed in a very hastening, light manner, despite a slight twist. Capital is seriously flawed, with its disjointed, episodic structure that reads like a series of newspaper observations and vignettes. It’s a long book (so overwritten and overwrought to make a point about greed and mindless consumption) that just ends with the stories winding themselves out. Seriously?

527 pp. W.W. Norton. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[667] Lord of the Flies – William Golding

1flies

” Listen, Ralph. Never mind what’s sense. That’s gone—” (Ch.12: Cry of the Hunters, p.188)

After having missed this book in high school, I have deliberately deferred it because the story of a bunch of brats fending for themselves on an island (think the show Survivors but younger cast) just doesn’t appeal to me. But Lord of the Flies is more than a simple adventure story of boys on a desert island. In fact, the implications of the story go far beyond the degeneration of a few children. Set in an unspecified war period, a plane crashes, leaving a group of schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island. It’s a dream come true that they are alone free from adults’ nagging—except now they have to sustain on their own.

In a moment the platform was full of arguing, gesticulating shadows. To Ralph, seated, this seemed the breaking up of sanity. Fear, beasts, no general agreement that the fire was all-important: and when one tried to get the thing straight the argument sheered off, bringing up fresh, unpleasant matter. (Ch.5: Beast from Water, p.88)

The fair-haired Ralph is elected the chief to ensure order is in place and chores are completed. Exemplary of his leadership skills, Ralph insists on the maintenance of a fire signal so passing ships might spot them. He also builds shelters for the younger boys, known as “littluns”, in the group. The geeky and resourceful Piggy is his think tank. He befriends a choirboy named Jack, who turns out to be kind of a devil incarnate, the antagonist of the story. Both boys grow to loathe each other as the days pass—until when Jack and his hunters kill a sow and believe their role of being hunters could exempt themselves from other duties. With Jack getting hungrier for power, what was initially thought of as a blissful escape from the adults develops into something more sinister and unsettling.

Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are? (Ch.8, Gift for the Darkness, p.143)

To say the least the book is about loss of innocence. To accentuate such grim loss Golding uses half-formed boys, not men, who are perched between civilization and savagery in order to embody the central conflict between good and evil. The symbolic and metaphysical figure of the Skull, the pig head impaled on a stick the boys sacrificed to the imaginary Beast, identifies itself as Evil. So the book is not about boys becoming independent, but delves into a deeper and more disturbing meaning: the moral shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not only any political system however apparently logical or respectable. Ralph’s respectable idea of parliament and brain trust must come to clash with Jack’s forces of anarchy and the leaning to violence. The basic instincts of a marooned band of children could be translated onto a worldwide scale. Paralyzed by their fear of an unseen creature they call the Beast, they only resort to ritual sacrifices of flesh to appease the Beast. This book is a powerful allegory that recognizes the human capacities for evil and the superficial nature of human moral system.

202 pp. Penguin. Mass Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[640] The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes

1ending

” It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. ” (Part Two, p.80)

The second time around The Sense of An Ending is even more hard-going. The subject matter is heavy and grim despite the short length of the book. It’s a mystery of memory and missed opportunity. Right off the bat the reader knows Tony Webster, who narrates in first-person voice, is unreliable. The unreliability is not a result of aging, but a deliberate effort on his part to avoid things rather than facing them. He’s a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who “had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded.” (99). He receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, some 40 years earlier. The mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has bequeathed him a legacy that unsettles him, forcing him to get in touch with Veronica and seek answers to certain unresolved questions.

I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens the field, doesn’t it? It also leads straight to the matter of Miss Veronica Ford. (Part Two, p.81)

The matter involves a diary of his best friend, Adrian Finn, for whom Veronica left Tony. The relationship ended very badly and Tony wrote Adrian and Veronica a vitriolic letter. Had he loved her? At the time, it was an emotion he had lacked the spine to own up to. As Tony assembles his willfully forgotten past impressions and actions, it’s obvious that he has been spineless his whole life. He has lived so carefully, avoids being hurt and calls it a capacity for survival. His life’s modest wages have resulted in the accumulation, the multiplication of loss, quoting his word. So his tragedy really is not the damage he has caused others, but the fact that he avoids deep connection rather than embracing it, for fear of risking its loss.

One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt—and inflicted for precisely that reason. (Part Two, p.142)

Remorse is the whole point of The Sense of An Ending. Tony Webster is more than the unreliable narrator—he is a total mystery to himself, clueless of the damage incurred on others while he is concerned only to avoid conflict, pain, and hurt. He plays safe but that’s just cowardice. The novel is beautifully written, full of the narrator’s own conversation bubbles. It reads a like short story infused with mislaid facts and suppressed memories that resurface at the whim of his mind. The corroboration he seeks only comes as a painful revelation of how he just resembles the people he fears.

150 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[639] The Year After – Martin Davies

1after

” They all wanted Tom unchanged, I could see that now. Lady Stansbury, Margot, even young Bill Stansbury. Tom was dependable, Tom was a rock. Tom was their link to the past, something that had survived, something solid to build on. No one wanted to believe there were any cracks. (Ch.12, Tom, p.380)

Set in 1919, The Year After concerns Captain Tom Allen, a soldier who has recently returned to England following the First World War. Feeling alone and unsettled in austere post-war London, Tom accepts a timely invitation to spend the Christmas season at Hannesford Court in Devon, home of the Stansbury family. The visit draws him back to the high society haven where he spent his pre-war years.

Behind the majestic decor and aside from the genteel façade, the war has been very tough on Hannesford. A son lost, another maimed, both daughters robbed of advantageous marriages. It seems inconceivable that the delicate, unworldly hostess, Lady Stansbury, could have survived such accumulation of sorrows. She asks Tom of a favor—to speak at the memorial service of the family’s golden boy, Harry. While Hannesford contrives to restore a festive air, the place, once full of boisterous young men who frequented raucous parties, is strangely empty.

Sturdy, honest folk. Yet I knew what Anne had said was true. I too would have found it much pleasanter to believe in an Eden free of serpents. (Ch.10, Tom, p.302)

The return to Hannesford prompts Tom to re-examine a dark, long-forgotten episode, just before the war, that occurred the annual grand ball in 1914. The death of a German professor marred the idyllic days of the house before the outbreak of the apocalyptic war. With the help of Anne Gregory, once the house nurse but now living in the vicarage, he uncovers a web of secrets and deception—and suddenly it dawns on him that none of the Hannesford inhabitants, or those were revered, is what they appeared to be. The family rather buries their shameful secrets along with the dead.

They were all the past. Nothing was the same. They were fragments of the world I’d thought we were defending. Yet it was gone already, despite those endless ranks of wasted lives; gone without anyone really noticing its passing. (Ch.8, Tom, p.255)

The Year After is not a war story, but one of love, loss, and the struggle to adapt to the world in the aftermath of the most destructive of conflicts. The bulk of the plot actually occurred back in 1914, unfolding at the expense of Tom and Anne’s remembrance and soul-searching. It is told in first person from Tom’s perspective, but much more intriguing, and revealing, despite the brevity, is the voice of Anne, whose accounts intersperse Tom’s. Her narrative fills in the gaps of happenings at Hannesford Court in Tom’s absence. Redolent in the pages ate lofty themes of unrequisited love, blind war pride, bereavement, and the whole british awkwardness as a result of a deliberate denial of reality and truth. The book shows how memory can be an uncertain witness and emotions can affect time’s malleability. Davies’s prose is a feat of lyricism, evocative of the period and life.

401 pp. Hodder/Hachette UK. Paper 2012. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[623] The Distant Hours – Kate Morton

1distant

” For Juniper, Daddy’s death had been like the release of that first rope. She had felt liberation as her body, her soul, her whole being shifted sideways . . . There remained now only a single piece of rope stretching between Juniper and her home. It was the hardest to sever, tied neatly in a careful knot by Percy and Saffy. And yet it had to be done, for their love and concern entrapped her just as surely as Daddy’s expectations. ” (Part 4, p.405)

I breathe a much-needed breath of relief as I turn the last pages of The Distant Hours, a book so overwritten that the author would go such extraordinary length to dress a family mystery that could be told in half the pages. The Distant Hours, fraught with themes of family duty, expectations, love, and legacy, is the story if Milderhurst Castle. It all begins with a long lost letter, which leads to Edie Burchill taking a trip from London to Kent in search of the grand old castle, and the three Blythe sisters that live within it. She is linked to Milderhurst because her mother, as a child, lived there when she was evacuated during World War II and became best friends with the youngest sister.

No. No one else could be expected to look at things that way. They couldn’t know what it was to grow up in the shadows of that book. Percy felt great bitterness as she thought about the ghastly legacy of the Mud Man. This—what had happened tonight . . . Evil on itself shall back recoil—and Milton had been right, for they were paying still for Daddy’s evil act. (Part 5, p.553)

Milderhurst is the home of world renowned author Raymond Blythe, whose famous work had an unknown origin, and his three quirky daughters. All spinsters they are: twins Percy and saffy, rigid disciplinarian and motherly nurturer, and the younger, eclectic Juniper, who suffered a nervous breakdown when her lover jilted her in 1941, failing to show up on the night they were to announce their engagement. Since then her sisters have been very protective of her.

So the book is really wrapped up in more than one mystery, with Juniper’s mental setback being just the tip of an iceberg. What happened to her fiancé? More secrets are buried deep within the stone walls of the castle—and they all seem to be related by a long shot.

There was more to this story than met the eye. There had to be. For people didn’t just go mad simply because their lover stood them up, did they? (Part 3, p.280)

Indeed there is more to the story, but not worth trudging through a constipation of unnecessary details that do not advance the plot. Morton aims to give reader snippets of the different plot lines that slowly simmer and boil in the tragic outcome, but she tries too hard to be clever. The book is overdone, and confusing and wary at times. The relief to the constipation finally comes in the last fifth of the book, when one of the sisters who, privy to all the secrets the whole time, defensive of her father’s selfish ambitions and wrongful acts, decides to break loose everything to Edie. The budles do tie up seamlessly but it’s just not worth the slog. The morale of this long-winded tale is that even the most invincible and respectable could succumb to vanity at the expense of humanity.

560 pp. Washington Press Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[598] Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

aunt

” It was as though I had escaped from an open prison, had been snatched away, provided with a rope ladder and a waiting car, into my aunt’s world, the world of the unexpected character and the unforeseen event. There the rabbit-faced stranger was at home, the Czech with his two million plastic straws, and poor O’Toole busy making a record of his urine. ” (Part 2, Ch.3, 202)

Ambiguously titled to suggest a non-fiction, Travels With My Aunt is a bit of an oddity consider that Greene’s other works have gravitated on espionage and wars. Set in the mid-1960s, the book centers around Henry Pulling, a retired English bank manager who has lived life so prudently, safely and meticulously that he comes to realize he has left no consequential living memory in anyone he’s ever met. Single, never been married, unburdened by an familial obligation, his interests are dahlias and literature.

I despise no one, no one. Regret your own actions, if you like that kind of wallowing in self-pity, but never, never despise. Never presume yours is a better morality. (Part 1, Ch.13, 111)

Pulling’s monotonous life all changes when his mother dies. For the first time since he was a toddler he meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, an old lady who is neither sober nor serious. She has long been absent, traveling through Europe, doing what later crosses my mind as intelligence work. She whisks her nephew away on excursions, at her own expenses, across Europe, through Paris, Brighton, Istanbul, and on the Orient Express. Regaled for Henry are stories of her entangled romances, petty criminality, and foreign intrigue all over the world. Most shocking of all to Henry is the story of his parents.

Obviously the main point of the book is about how people choose to live their lives. Aunt Augusta in the foremost provides the most food for thought: to live for the moment (surrender to extravagance) and to pursue her heart desire. the eccentric skein of character—the hippies, the CIA man, the war criminal, the charlatan, the man who puts both mistresses in the same hotel—all takes on dimension. That said, the book is not without its flaw. It’s parts are better than the whole, with bursts of humor and sober moments full of life’s instruction. Travels With My Aunt can feel meticulous and slow, but it’s worth a read for its keen observation on human dilemmas and eclecticism. When Pulling’s unforeseen adventure runs out of steam, one realizes the novel is not as light-hearted as it seems. Pulling finally “lives” as he is immersed in the streak of anarchy. Life really is fully of ironies if not an irony itself.

265 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Greene

aunt

Travels With My Aunt (sounds like a memoir but it’s a novel) reveals a Graham Greene I’m not familiar with. It’s a very fun read, although I’m not saying I don’t enjoy The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, which are heavy on espionage and warfare. “A journey from suburban London to Brighton to Istanbul to South America, it also explores recent history – with a compassionate overview of the sorrows of war, a hilarious send-up of 1960s counter culture, and surprising revelations about Henry himself. Graham Greene described his most enjoyably straightforward comedy as ‘the only book I have written for the fun of it’, and it’s easy to reciprocate his pleasure.” Aunt and nephew got the the Orient Express en route to Istanbul. Aunt Augusta, however, at the age of 75 is anything but serious and sober. She belongs firmly to that most formidable breed of the English eccentric, the maiden aunt- the sort of part that in the cinema is always played by Margaret Rutherford or Dame Edith Evans.

I have never planned anything illegal in my life,’ Aunt Augusta said. ‘How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?

They think my mother’s ashes are marijuana.

God … created a number of possibilities in case some of his prototypes failed — that is the meaning of evolution.

One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father’s library had not contained the right books.

Despite the lighter side of the story and drak sense of humor, there is still a sense of seriousness in this book. But I cannot help thinking from time to time that this is the mature equivalent of Auntie Mame! I’m so glad I’ve found this in a used bookstore in sleepy San Luis Obispo.

[571] The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng

gift

” The fortune-teller, long since dead, had said I was born with the gift of rain . . . Like the rain, I had brought tragedy into many people’s lives but, more often than not, rain also brings relief, clarity, and renewal. It washes away our pain and prepares us for another day, and even another life. Now that I am old I find that rains follow me and give me comfort, like the spirits of all the people I have ever known and loved. ” (Book Two, Ch.23, p.431)

Malaysia was at once colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. The Gift of Rain is set against the period of British Malacca, toward the end of the country’s colonization, when Japanese soldiers cut through impenetrable rainforest of Penang and took over the government. The story is told by Philip Khoo-Hutton, the son of an English father and Chinese mother who grew on the Malay island and lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The novel opens about 50 years after the Japanese surrender, when Philip is an old man, still living in his childhood home redolent of painful memories—memories that are brought into sharp focus by an impromptu visitor from Japan. Michiko was the former lover of Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and master of aikido that Philip befriended in the late 1930s. Endo-san became the most formative influence on Hutton’s life on the eve of war. Gradually Hutton warms to his visitor who teases out story of Hutton’s life with Endo-san.

I had gone back to many of those places in the days after the war, when in the silences of my life I missed him. I had gone hoping the places would still retain an echo of his presence, and of his passage, but I had only met with emptiness. (Book One, Ch.15, p.168)

An Eurasian, Hutton (his step-siblings were pure British from his father’s first marriage) was never fully accepted by either the Chinese or the English in Penang. Over time and since an early age he has hardened himself against the insults and whispered comments. Alienated from his community and family, the 17-year-old at last discovers a sense of belonging through an unexpected friendship with Endo, who becomes his mentor and master of martial art. The story Hutton tells is meandering, but engaging, leading from his infatuation with the sensei (teacher) to a more mature knowledge that friendship with this man with an insidious purpose on the island is a burden as well as a privilege. He has accepted the bargain: Endo’s protection for his native knowledge.

The problem is, some mistakes can be so great, so grievous, that we end up paying for them again and again, until eventually all our lives forget why we began paying in the first place. (Book One, Ch.13, p.154)

The Gift of Rain, framing its story on a little-heard-of Malaysian island with a diverse people and culture, delves into the moral ambiguity that its protagonist faces when war erupts. Hutton finds himself torn between love for his family and loyalty to his Japanese teacher and friend. Tan is not afraid to deal with such grey areas into which he puts Hutton. Both Hutton and Endo are well-etched. They are both shouldered with the duty to protect their families and have to act within the constraint of obligations. Tan’s treatment of their dilemma and emotional complexities is both nuanced and realistically ambiguous. They are capable of nobility, but also failures of the spirit and most importantly, they have to bear responsibility for evil as well as the good they do. The only drawback of this debut (nominated for Booker Prize 2007) was the excessive aikido element that sometimes teeters over into daftness. Tan’s evocative and thoughtful prose also evokes the work of Kazuo Ishiguro and Somerset Maugham.

432 pp. Weinstein Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[566] Princess Elizabeth’s Spy – Susan Elia MacNeal

spy

“You grew up in America, after all—exactly what do you know about British aristocracy?”
“Not much beyond the historical, I’m afraid,” Maggie said.
“All right, impromptu quiz—what do you say when you meet the King and Queen?”
Maggie gave David a wry look. Frain had forgotten about royal etiquette lessons. “Hello?”
David smacked himself on the head. “Oh, my dear Eliza Doolittle — we have a long night ahead of us.” (Ch.5, p.52)

This book is Maggie Hope Mystery #2, a sequel to Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. After she has discovered and broken the hidden Nazi code that points to three specific attacks in London, Maggie Hope is no longer Winston Churchill’s secretary at Number Ten. She has proven that her scientific acumen, intelligence, problem-solving skills and ability to handle dangerous situations make her a great asset to the British war effort. The beginning of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy sees Maggie entering MI-5 school for spies. Although her grades are stellar, she doesn’t do well enough on the physical tests to be sent abroad to gather intelligence for the British front.

Maggie shook her head. A decapitated Lady-in-Waiting, rabid corgis, and a man who lives with birds? ‘I thought living in a castle would be interesting, Sir Owens,’ she said, ‘but nothing—absolutely nothing—prepared me for this. . . Maggie went back into the sitting room. She stopped by the bookcase, which was empty. She squinted at it. The dust indicated books had been there for a time and had recently been removed. Now, that’s odd, she thought. Why would someone take Lily’s books? (Ch.9, p.102-3)

Instead MI-5 finds a job for her as math tutor to Princess Elizabeth, a post as an undercover, so she can keep an eye on Elizabeth, fondly known as Lilibet, who, as heir to the throne, may be a Nazi target. Soon she realizes danger is on the prowl on castle grounds when a lady-in-waiting is murdered. Her book, removed from the shelf of her quarter, is proof of connection to another murder at the Claridge’s in London. Castle life quickly proves more dangerous and her assignment, after all, is not cushy but one that involves intrigue, kidnapping, and treason. In this novel, besides the conspiracy that places the entire royal family in peril, Maggie Hope also grapples with the loss of her boyfriend and the possible truth that her father, Edmund Hope, an expert in code and cipher at Bletchley, might have been a German spy.

As Maggie needs to discern who the German agents are that have infiltrated the castle, she races against time to save England and its heir from a most disturbing fate. Although Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is not a historical fiction, more a fictional story set in the past with real characters, the book is very well-researched. The Windsor Castle, with its grandeur and staidness, is a workplace like “living in a museum—and terribly cold in winter” during the war. The King and Queen were strict about rationing, so even the princesses were limited to one egg per week, and the rest of the restrictions the British people lived through. The castle’s dungeons were used a bomb shelter where servants and the Princesses move their beds, changes of clothes, books, kitchen utensil and furniture in to keep calm and carry on. This light mystery gives one a glimpse of what it was like to live in war-time England and the story constantly keeps one on the edge using humor and red herrings.

369 pp. Bantam Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[539] We Had It So Good – Linda Grant

good

” 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]