18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
We could have had it a bit better,
This review is from: We Had It So Good (Paperback)
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.