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Food for Thought
on 11 February 2011
I loved The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant and eagerly anticipated her latest novel, a tale of the "baby boomer" generation who indeed "had it so good" and perhaps did not appreciate their good fortune.
The novel is first and foremost character driven, covering 40 years in the lives of first generation American, Stephen Newman, his English wife, Andrea, their family and friends. Stephen, son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant father and a Cuban mother, manages to dodge the draft thanks to a Rhodes Scholarship during which he meets and marries Andrea, a pleasant English girl with bad teeth. It is initially a marriage of convenience as he avoids the horrors of war but they settle into each other despite Stephen's occasional pangs for American life. Somehow, despite little effort on his part, they land on their feet, having fully enjoyed the benefits of free university education, easy access to the property ladder, free health care, job opportunities - in part due to the sacrifices of their parents' generation.
So, is Stephen counting his blessings? Far from it, he is a most unlikeable character, taking everything for granted, never satisfied with his life, completely out of touch with his own children yet berating (in private) his own parents for their lack of affection. His friend Ivan, with whom he experimented in LSD manufacture whilst at Oxford, seemed to personify anarchy as a student but ends up as an advertising executive. The only character who stands true to her rebellious student stance is Grace who certainly doesn't find her honesty rewarded.
In this very thoughtful novel, Linda Grant lets her characters speak for themselves, hanging themselves as they do so. None of them have great emotional depth as they are from a self-obsessed generation, too busy contemplating their own navels to have developed any empathy along the way. Admittedly they might veer dangerously into stereotype territory at times but the author reins them in sufficiently so we can capture the zeitgeist of a generation, clueless but well-meaning, complacent yet ambitious. It is especially interesting to compare the "baby boomers" with our current youth who genuinely don't have it so good.
So, plenty of food thought here in this insightful, extremely readable novel. You might not like the characters but you will develop an understanding of what motivates them and how their emotional and social inheritance moulded them this way. A very interesting, well written novel which will make you think, long after the final page is turned.