The moral of this story... I mean as in the story of my reading of Linda Grant's latest novel We Had It So Good, is don't start reading the proof copy within minutes of its arrival and some three months before publication date because you can't possibly wait any longer.
Next, don't be bowled over by it but somehow not get around to sitting down and writing about it there and then.
So Christmas came and went and I had that piece to do for The Reader, and then it was January and publication date for the novel and I thought, I'll hang on and let the hype subside, it'll be Orange long-listed so I'll jump in then...and to my complete surprise, verging on horror, We Had It So Good, my sure-fire Orange was nowhere to be seen. And I remain mystified about that omission, but onwards and upwards, it's the du Maurier Festival this week and I'll be in Fowey for Friday and Saturday's events which, if I can get on the road early enough will include Linda Grant talking about her novel at 10am on Friday morning.
The time scale for We Had it So Good is mine, these are the baby-boomers those of us born between 1946 and 1964, the post-war 'demographic bulge' , the supposed 'shockwave' who remodeled society as they moved through it according to that most unreliable of sources Wikipedia. I'm not sure I did a lot of remodelling being more prone to sitting soaking my aching feet whilst everyone else get on with and I did my nurse training, but reading We Had it So Good has been a revelation.
Stephen is a Rhodes scholar, Jewish, a Vietnam draft dodger who works his passage to the UK on board a cruise ship and claims to have met fellow Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton on the way. From a working class family in California, Stephen realises he has landed on another planet, Oxford, a 'private members club' an alien world of which he has little understanding. He somehow falls into a marriage with a fellow student, the very English Andrea, and the novel charts their life together via neatly oscillating perspectives, Stephen's, Andrea's, Grace the university friend with the 'baggage' and the shocking secret. I'm rarely that shocked, but on this occasion, and to Linda Grant's credit, I was...completely.
Grace is she who warns, seeming like a cypher for the ills of the generation. Then there are the children Max and Marianne, well-placed to pass judgement on their parents as they grow into their adult personae, Max as a magician, Marianne as a photographer. Two interestingly juxtaposed professions, one about deception and the trick of the eye, the other a lens focusing on capturing the accuracy and an account of a particular moment, clever vehicles for Linda Grant to explore what pickings may be left for the new generation.
To read We Had it So Good (and I've now read it twice) is to indulge in a sort of retrospective bildungsroman where I could imagine a little part for myself too because I was there. It's a reconcililation of the past and the present, the 'what might have been' with the 'what is' and with wonderfully recognisable archetypes clutching both their inherent and their acquired anxieties. The humble beginnings, the growing and unexpected kudos of the Islington address, though not quite so salubrious when Stephen and Andrea bought in 1981 (still justifiably blue and following on from the Old Kent Road on the Monopoly board in the early 1980s), Stephen's job at the BBC, Andrea's profession as a psychotherapist. The anxieties of expectation frequently unmet and unachieved with a bar set invisibly high by a generation hell-bent on progress. Theories that the evolution of the human brain has wired it to cope more effectively with scarcity than abundance feel entirely relevant here, and it is the difficulties of dealing with that abundance, coupled with a sense of 'betterness' that creates so much of the angst for Stephen and Andrea, and when it comes to Stephen's final and devastating realisation (which I won't reveal) I was reminded of April and Frank in Revolutionary Road..
When Stephen's father, at the age of ninety, and wearing a pair of bright orange Crocs, decides to make the trip from the US to Europe and Poland to trace his roots, the anticipated interrogation of the past that Stephen expects and has perhaps been unwittingly seeking (and that I as a reader thought I had readily mapped out in my mind,) is surprisingly and deftly subverted by Linda Grant, it all defies the predictable and I loved this book for many, many reasons but for that one especially.
There is so much more, but not a word more, because you definitely need to just pick up We Had it So Good and be carried along by it, read it, go with the flow but don't miss it. Every page holds a little gem, a priceless moment in the company of Linda's Grant's wry and witty sense of humour, or an insightful observation and understanding about human nature that makes you sit up and take notice. If you are a baby boomer you will also love this book for the plethora of timely references to things we have all known and loved. I was heard to exclaim things like...
'Blimey loon pants...remember those..'
'Oh yes, rent £8 a week.'
and I'll bet some of you will remember doing this...
'While Stephen slept she slit the outside seams of his jeans from hem to the knee and cut triangles from the green velvet dress and sewed them in. His Levis had turned into flares. In the morning he awoke and stumbled into his trousers. He looked down and saw his feet disappearing below the flapping fabric...'