Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We Had It So Good

Linda Grant writes like a dream. Not a bad Anita Shreve all will be punished dream, a wonderful I-can-dream-of –a-time-when-everything-I-read-will-be-this-good kind of dream. Grant is a wonderful guide through the hopes of youth verses the reality of adulthood. She has the most amazing ability to illuminate lives, to find what we all hold in those tiny corners we guard in just a few quick sentences. 

Grant’s most recent novel is We Had It So Good. This time the story is about a young couple who meet at Oxford in 1969, marry, have children and eventually face up to what they thought they would be and what they have become. Stephen is a Rhodes scholar from a working class, Jewish family in California suddenly in a world he is unprepared for culturally and competitively. Andrea is the daughter of absentee parents at Oxford to study psychiatry. When Stephen gets bounced from University they marry. For Andrea it’s a love match for Stephen it’s a way to avoid Vietnam and the draft.

Surprisingly the marriage takes. The squatterville section of London they settle in during the property is evil days of the sixties ends up being worth a couple million, Andrea becomes a successful psychotherapist and they have two independent, cynical and judgmental children, Max and Marianne. Stephen uses the times to play hippie, he uses his science degree to make LSD, uses his connections to become a BBC producer , his charm to bed other women and in general sits back emotionally letting life happen to him. As the couple reaches their fifties luck seems to finally abandon them.
In middle age Stephen and Andrea and most of their friends from college days have reached a comfortable abundance in their lives. The fires they planned to light when they were young have given way to living essentially the same lives, with the same desires, as their parents. Their children are dismissive of their parents’ achievements both past and present, retirement is looming and caring for their own aging parents (The generation that saved the free world and that has to rankle.)is on the doorstep.

These rebels of the sixties have made big changes happen socially and technologically but have they come anywhere near fulfilling the promise of their early days? Taking We Had It So Good in this direction, Grant could have easily made her novel a mocking condemnation of wasted opportunity populated with caricatures of former rebels. Instead she did what she does best. She takes ordinary characters with ordinary lives and brings them, their choices and their cultural experiences into focus with a steady unsentimental eye. We Had It So Good is not Grant's best novel but it is very, very good and I will gladly take close to the best from her verses the best from a thousand other authors.

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