44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
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.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 2 March 2011
As my introduction to the work of Linda Grant I found this a thoroughly engrossing book which sucked me into the smells and sounds of every decade inhabited by its characters. As a "baby boomer" myself who lived in both Oxford and London at the same time as Stephen and Andrea, I thought the description of life and attitudes was uncannily accurate - consequently I could identify with the main characters and become absorbed into their transition from hippy students to ageing grandparents.
Linda Grant's style is crisp yet detailed - her portrayal of decent but flawed people is such that I cared about every generation of the family. I felt sorry to reach the end of the book.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Stephen Newman is getting older and is finding it difficult to come to terms with the way his life has turned out. What happened to his hopes and ambitions, to the generation that was going to change the world?
We Had It So Good follows the story of Stephen and his family over several decades during the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. At times reading this book was almost like watching one of those nostalgic television documentaries that show us snapshots of life in previous decades. As the years go by we see how Stephen and Andrea change over time and have had to abandon some of their dreams - but with Stephen in particular there's always that feeling of regret, that he's settled for second-best, and he does at one point decide that "that was what life was, perennially settling for less".
The book doesn't have much of a plot, concentrating instead on painting a detailed and realistic portrait of the Newman family. Despite the lack of action though, there are still some moments of drama - mainly the types of small dramas that most people will experience in their lifetime - and there were even a few surprises and revelations that I didn't see coming.
Linda Grant's writing is of a high quality and she develops her characters in great detail from their appearance and the clothes they wear, to their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. And yet throughout the first half of the book I didn't feel any personal involvement in their story and always felt slightly detached from what was going on. Although the Newmans and their friends felt believable and real to me, I didn't think I liked them enough to want to spend 340 pages reading about their everyday lives. But halfway through the book I started to warm to some of the characters and as a result, the story became more compelling. And once I had settled into the pace of the writing, I started to enjoy it.
It was interesting to see how Stephen as an American (with a Polish immigrant father and a Cuban mother) adapted to life in England, first at Oxford and then in London. I also liked reading about the relationship between Stephen and his father, Si. Stephen and Andrea's daughter, Marianne, is another intriguing character. And this review wouldn't be complete without mentioning Andrea's best friend, Grace, who is quite a sad and solitary figure, trying to run away from her past. Although she's not the most pleasant of people, with a hard, prickly personality, I was far more interested in Grace than in the Newmans.
I should point out that I'm probably not really the target audience for this book and although I did end up enjoying it, I can see that it would probably be appreciated more by readers of Stephen and Andrea's generation. However, the book still left me with a lot of things to think about, from bigger issues such as immigration, family relationships and generational differences to the smaller ones, such as the principles behind the advertising of washing powder!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Grant's fifth novel follows a group of friends of the so-called 'baby boomer' generation from their student days in Oxford to late middle age, also looking at the lives of the children of one 'baby boomer' couple, and how their lives develop in comparison to their parents.
Stephen, an American scientist and child of a Polish-Jewish father and Cuban mother, both immigrants to the US, comes to Oxford at the same time as Bill Clinton (with whom he shares petits fours on the boat over) as a postgraduate Rhodes Scholar. After a year of studious work in the labs he falls in with a group of undergraduates and takes to the hippie life, setting up a factory in the Oxford labs to manufacture his own acid tabs. Predictably he's caught and sent down - soon after he marries his girlfriend Andrea (a 'lost girl', somewhat abandoned by her crazy parents) in order to avoid the Vietnam War draft, and the pair move with their friend Ivan into a London squat. Over the years, Stephen and Andrea gradually leave hippie-dom behind. Andrea trains and qualifies as a psychotherapist, Stephen becomes a science journalist and - after a failed attempt to return to the US and get a science job there - a BBC producer of science programmes. They save enough money to buy a lovely house in Canonbury, the value of which goes up and up. Their two children go to private schools and do well. Meanwhile, as Stephen and Andrea prosper, Grace, Andrea's best friend from Oxford, stays true to 1960s socialist ideals, drifting from country to country, from job to job, from man to man and eventually returning to be taken in by Andrea, the friend she once cherished, who has turned out to be the one with the 'perfect life'.
But are Stephen and Andrea's lives really so perfect? Certainly neither of them feel as happy as they think they should, bearing in mind their success. Nor do their children seem to want to use their lives as models for their own: their daughter, Marianne, rejects university and the prospect of a well-paid job to train as a war photographer and spends her life travelling the globe, their son Max rejects his parents' 'noisy' world of talking to become a conjurer. And when Stephen's elderly father visits and confesses a long-held secret to Andrea, it's clear that the past was nothing like as secure as the couple believed either. Has life as a 'baby-boomer' couple allowed Stephen and Andrea to shut their eyes to some of the complexities of human life?
Grant brilliantly portrays life in Britain from the 1960s to the present day. Her observations of 'hippy' Oxford life and London squats in the 1960s and 1970s are hilarious - even more so than those of Michele Roberts in 'Paper Houses' as Grant feels no need to justify her characters' decisions. She also provides a witty commentary on North London professional life in the 1980s and 90s, and on the growing obsession with the internet (Stephen begins to live life more on the net than in reality). There are some very fine characters in this book. Andrea, the once love-starved psychotherapist who tries to use her job to make her a more grounded, forgiving and warm person, is one, as (though she may not be particularly likeable) is her damaged friend, Grace, so traumatized by her adolescent experiences that she refuses to settle into anything resembling a 'normal' life - Grace is particularly successful as a creation because we care about her even though seeing how difficult she must be to live with. Later in the book, there are magnificent sections dealing with Marianne, her work as a photographer and her love affair with an Anglo-Polish doctor, and with Stephen's father Si (the account of him watching 'Schindler's List' and his subsequent return to Poland is hilarious, his final recounting of his secret very moving). Grant tucks in a huge amount of history without ever seeming to lecture, from the Vietnam War to the reign of Mrs Thatcher to Blairite Britain, the 7 July attacks and the grumbling approach of the Recession. The final chapters are incredibly poignant. If I stop short of five stars it's because I felt the book had a 'hollow man' at its centre - I found Stephen a curiously unsympathetic and frankly rather dull character, a man who at the heart of him seemed to have little interest in others. This may have been Grant's intention, but I found it a slight problem, as Stephen was a central presence for so much of the book. Grant might have done better to focus much more on Andrea and Marianne, the mother and daughter, of whom I wanted to know more.
Still, a very enjoyable read, and a definite must for anyone interested in post-war social history and in London. 4 and a half stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
There are only two reasons why I finished this book - because I had to read it for a book group and because it was being narrated to me by the brave Paul Panting on behalf of Audible. It was quite simply, tedious. There was little narrative that grabbed me, I felt the story line was just a tool to allow the author to express her opinions on every major event that has taken place since 1960. We had the baby boom and the contraceptive pill, hippies and LSD, the rise and rise of television, house prices and 9/11. ....And a great deal more besides.
One discussion did interest me - the one about advertising, and one really annoyed me - the idea of 'time', how cliche is that?? The repetition of the idea that the generation represented would never get old was also worn thin by the end of the book.
The main character was the rather unlikable Stephen Newman. He is mixed race, half Cuban, half Polish, and has spent his childhood in America. He is very much an American, however, even once he finds himself living in Oxford and then London, UK. He marries Andrea in order to avoid being called back to the States to fight in the Vietnam war and they progress from squatting students to middle class comfort, with 2.5 children. And that's about as exciting as it gets.
I enjoyed Linda Grant's book about life in Palestine in the post-war era, When I Lived in Modern Times, but this felt like it had been written by another author entirely.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
We Had It So Good is a great sweep through the sixties up to (almost) the present day. Stephen Newman is brought up in California, the son of immigrant parents. He manages to avoid the draft to Vietnam by going to London on a student scholarship. Here he meets and marries Andrea - a somewhat marriage of convenience although somehow their relationship endures.
Stephen and Andrea belong to the golden generation that took advantage of the new freedoms of the sixties - drugs, sex and rock and roll. They also had the benefit of free education and a thriving jobs market. They eventually, almost by accident, start buying the Islington house in which they live - a house that would be worth £3 million by the end of the book.
Marianne tells her younger brother: "They make it all up, you know. They have to invent something to make themselves sound interesting, but do they sound interesting to you? Dad's a bore and Mum's a nag." We are left with the question of just how interesting their lives were...or had they just enjoyed themselves and squandered the world's resources?
It is a very readable book with a very interesting structure and the narrative moves back and forth in time and focuses on the point of view of the many different characters. Linda Grant is really skilled at creating the dynamic, slightly crazy atmosphere of the sixties and seventies with some wonderful descriptions of the clothes, hairstyles, furnishings and food. Major events such as 9/11, 7/7 and the financial meltdown are all included but only obliquely.
Enjoyable and thought-provoking.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 February 2012
I am never very happy being critical, but this book has received good reviews and it doesn't deserve them. This is, pace all the raves, a poor novel. I am aware that it is a cliche now to invoke the Jamesian "show, don't tell" rule, but this book would have benefitted terrifically from a little of its application. There is an occasional slice of conversation - of animation - but they tend to be slid in between great chunks of exposition and Telling. It reads like an exercise in a sociology A level, one clumping reference after another, until the reader is at last astonished that a writer could have the gall to be so bleedin' obvious. The characters (although it is flattering to describe them thus) are caricatures, but they are not funny. Worse, they are not MEANT to be funny. And yet the form and context of the whole cries out for humour, because these players are laughable, and deserve to be laughed at. What is satire without the comedy? Answers please...
I wrote the above in a fit of exasperation, waiting for the novel to start. It does, finally, around page 150, and it rises to the standard of good family drama. But what with everyone in it still representing some idea or concept or notion it remains somehwo lifeless. One cannot easily imagine Linda Grant complaining that her characters seemed to have a life of their own. They are very tightly controlled, and for those who like the schematic this will probably be an enjoyable book. I enjoyed it enough to finish it, and indeed I have recommended it to a friend, but really only as a way of getting her to learn a little about modern British history... So: i shall up to two stars.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 13 February 2011
I was really looking forward to reading this novel when it arrived in the post and started it with an open mind, but have to say it was all a bit "meh". It struck me as little more than an everyday story of Islington folk - a middle class soap opera.
I didn't really sympathise with any of the characters and even felt quite distanced from them, perhaps as I'm between the ages of Stephen and Andrea and their children. Reading the book felt like watching a film I wasn't particularly interested in; it was all going in front of me, but wasn't involving and didn't hook me in. This was also true of the descriptions of historical events, for example 9/11 and 7/7, as the characters' reactions to them didn't chime with my memories of the time.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel for me was Stephen's strong memory of trying on Marilyn Monroe's fur aged nine, an image he treasures and returns to again and again. However, his father (who was there at the time) doesn't remember it, which for Stephen takes away from his precious memory. This rung true for me as I'm sure we've all got memories like that and are bruised to discover that what is precious to us may not even have left a dent in someone else's memory.
Another leitmotif of the book is the way that Stephen is constantly comparing himself to Bill Clinton, whom he knew when they were both Rhodes Scholars at Oxford. This comparison is (deliberately or not) ironic, as Stephen feels he has failed in his life while Clinton has succeeded. Were anyone to ask Clinton, whose Presidency ended in disgrace, about his life, he may well feel the same as Stephen. The underlying message seems to be that we all blunder about doing what we can in life, but end up in places we hadn't planned to, not knowing how we got there. Even those who plan their path, like Andrea, can't control anything and have very different lives to those they imagined.
The novel also seems to be saying that, even (or perhaps especially) among families, other people are ultimately unknowable and that what they say about themselves can't always be trusted. Stephen's father being a case in point, with his Mad Men-like identity change.
A positive aspect, however, is that having a bad upbringing doesn't necessarily mean that the characters will have a bad life and repeat the sins of their own parents to the same extent. In our current age of misery memoirs this makes for a refreshing change.
I didn't find all the characters totally successful - Grace was a bit too much "larger than life" and at times seemed to be there as a dreadful warning rather than as a living breathing person. Max also didn't seem fully drawn, and there's something a bit too pat about having Marianne always linked to sight (e.g. being a photographer) and Max being associated with hearing (e.g. he suffers temporary deafness as a child and marries a deaf woman). His interest in magic and illusion also seems to act as a metaphor for the lives of everyone in the novel - nothing is real, and what you see isn't necessarily what you get.
Trying to write a novel covering a period of over half a century is always going to be an ambitious challenge, and though there are good things in "We Had It So Good", I think perhaps Linda Grant's ambition was greater than her success.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2012
I really enjoyed this book that took us from 'the swinging sixties'to the noughties. It was weritten with feeling and understanding,and dealt with the lifes of a group of four students at Oxford University in the 60's and how there lifes and families panned out. I particularly enjoyed it as it covered my lifespan, and the problems that have and are occuring such as death of parents,growing old, the development of one's own children, and the death of a husband or wife. Linda Grant always writes with a great deal of knowledge,and limits the number of characters that are portrayed,the more that occur the greater the potential for confusion,and lack of interest. Two big events were incorporated into the novel-9/11 and 7/7 London tube bombings. They formed an integral part of the story, and fitted in well with the overall narrative.
This novel is highly recommended as thoughtful,nostalgic and intelligent read.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2011
I have liked Linda Grant's other writing very much, and this latest novel was not a disappointment. In fact, I wish I hadn't bought it as a Kindle download, because otherwise I'd now be passing it round to my contemporaries, saying 'You must read this! This is about our generation, our lives, our families.' It's not often that a writer manages to create a real sense of lives lived, gradual changes, families growing, disappointments and sadnesses, and the surprise of looking back after 30 years of marriage and wondering how such young idiots could have made the right decision for such silly reasons.