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We Had It So Good
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on 10 June 2011
Linda Grant's absorbing and well written novel examines the lives of the 'lucky' baby boomer generation, born to parents who had lived through the horrors of the second world war, children of the welfare state, socialised medicine and the possibility of further education available to all (at least in the UK), grants not student loans, growing up post pill, pre-AIDS, in a period of economic boom, the white heat of technology offering the prospect of advance, the UK was cool. What was not to like? A generation believing it would be different from its parents, a generation who would move and shape the world, particularly those who benefitted from that free university education, and was fortunate enough to be young at a time when education was still seen as an end in intself, not just the entry into higher paid occupations. Grant firstly looks at the UK in that time through the eyes of a US Rhodes scholar, Stephen, staying in England to avoid the Vietnam draft, looking at post-war Britain through the filter of his Polish Jewish and Cuban ancestry, and born-in-America eyes. Observing class in the UK, quickly absorbed into a draft dodging (but successfull) marriage of convenience to fellow Oxbridge student Andrea, becoming part of the moving and shaking Islingtonian set. The book covers 40 years of a family history, mainly through the eyes of Stephen and Andrea, but also their children, born into a less secure age, and their parents, with their disregarded and even heroic histories. Stephen, in particular, lives still caught in the past nostalgia for his turn on, tune in, drop out generation, who never believed that they too would fail to fulfil dreams, and, as all generations, would grow old, and perhaps see that their dreams were not so very life-changing and worthwhile at all. That their generation may in fact have failed to grow up, and that the generation before and behind them may have had to grapple with reality more deeply.

Whilst We Had It So Good doesn't quite reach the emotional charge of Grant's earlier The Clothes on Their Backs, its characters not quite so absorbing - like another reviewer, I questioned in particular Andrea's friend Grace, who seems to serve a role in the story, rather than be a believable character in her own right - this was an enjoyable and thought provoking read
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on 16 December 2015
We had it so good was a (more or less) 20th century saga of a couple meeting up in the sixties, with all the assumptions of that generation and how they and their friends and children fare, their lives carrying on through the disasters of 9/11 and the 7th July bombings, and the rise and fall of careers and expectations.
Although very different, I found parallels with Lionel Shriver’s book, 'The Post Birthday World,' which I read very recently, because she describes an American couple in England, and here we have an American husband, also settling in the UK. It’s interesting to see that perspective on London from American point of view, and also that both have brought 9/11 and their characters’ reactions to this event, into their novels, as this has now become part of the history of the 20th/21st century.
We had it so good was a book that I enjoyed more, as I progressed through it. To start with, I found the author seemed too detached from the story. There was too much looking back, with either regret or nostalgia, perhaps, from the points of view of the main characters - Stephen and Andrea - and to a certain extent, their friends, Grace and Ivan. Certainly the writing was good, although there were switches from present tense to past and back again, but this wasn’t the problem. Somehow, initially, I couldn’t immerse myself in the book; I couldn’t care enough about the protagonists.
It wasn’t till about a third of the way through the book, when a scene seemed to take place in real time, with Stephen and Andrea’s children - Max and Marianne - as the main characters, that I started to be drawn in.
From then on, all their stories became more interesting, and I became involved in their lives, and ended up appreciating it much more. Although I am always more interested in plot and people than the background scenario, Linda Grant did a good job in reminding the reader of fads and fashions of various periods, and the events that made an impact during the fifty or so years in which the book takes place.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 May 2012
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.
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on 2 August 2015
I was really disappointed with this as I had read Upstairs at the Party and thought it was very good.

This book was strangely similar in as much as it paints a convincing portrait of recent times but, unlike the later book, did not have a dramatic narrative 'hook' to build upon.

Instead what we have is a rambling journey through the life and times of a couple of 'babyboomers' from their university days through to the death of one of them This is exactly my era so , in theory, it should have appealed to me much more than it did.

Although none of the characters were either entirely plausible, the women came out as marginally more realistic than the men who were very weakly drawn and tended to be caricatures

Any attempt at any personal narrative or development is drowned out by the social history references which are mildly entertaining in providing background colour but there is no real insights or attempt at any real analysis as to their real impact or effect. on the world at large. not entirely certain that is entirely valid to gatuitously use events such as9/11 or 7/7 in this way.

at a lesser level, the number of times we were reminded that Clinton was an Oxford Rhodes scholar became quie tedious.

There could have been a good book here but afraid that it never emerged ouat of the mass of backgound detail of the times in which they lived and their own personal histories.
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VINE VOICEon 12 February 2011
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!
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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.
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on 11 February 2011
We Had It So Good is the story of Stephen and his family. Born in America to a Cuban mother and Polish father, Stephen gains a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford in the 1960s. There he meets Grace, Andrea and Ivan and together they take a lot of drugs and talk about how they could change the world until Stephen is drafted by the American army to fight in Vietnam. In order to avoid what he sees as certain death, he marries Andrea and they move to a squat in London while Grace disappears to travel the world. As they grow up, settle down and have children, their concerns change and they become more and more detached from their idealistic younger selves.

Had this not been a book club pick I would almost certainly never have read it. Aging hippies becoming increasingly middle aged and middle class isnft really my thing, and I still think that after reading Grantfs book. Perhaps Ifm just too far removed from that time period and way of thinking (Ifm even younger than Stephen and Andreafs children in the novel) for it to have any resonance with me; Ifm sure this would be a far more interesting book for someone who had lived through the same experiences and developed in a similar way to the central characters. As it was, I found them to be intensely irritating, although I had flashes of sympathy for them from time to time, particularly in the way that Andreafs story was concluded. This might have been intentional, I donft know, but it didnft make the book a particularly enjoyable read for me.

Far more interesting, in my opinion, are the peripheral characters. I thought that Grant manages to inject really intriguing character traits into Max, Marianne and the various parents who appear throughout the book. All of them are distinct and different and I wish that more time had been given to them and to their concerns rather than to the ineffectual, dissatisfied Stephen and Andrea, although obviously these two represent the framework which holds all of the others together. I thought that Gracefs sections, while initially confusing (who is this disembodied first person narrator suddenly having a chapter? Why?) were effective and, once it was revealed why they were there, a clever way of weaving her own story into the main body of the novel and showing how everything was intertwined.

One thing that was a new experience for me with this book was reading about events that Ifve lived through. A quick glance at my book list will tell you that I donft read a lot of contemporary fiction, so it was a real change to read something that goes right up to the present day. I thought that Grant tackles this skilfully, allowing the reader to instantly recognise what is going on and which crucial world events have occurred without ever being obvious about it. September 11th, for example, is mentioned without the date or the words eWorld Trade Centref being used and yet it is abundantly clear what has just happened. Likewise with the July 7th bombings on the London Underground.

On the whole I found the writing in We Had It So Good to be effective and well thought out, even if the story wasnft exactly my cup of tea. There was, however, one stylistic device that I found incredibly annoying and that is the use of occasional chapters or sometimes just individual paragraphs in the present tense for no discernible reason. I could understand it (although I would still find it irritating) if the change in tense reflected a shift to more immediate concerns or continuous actions, but the present tense paragraphs seem to be largely random and have no particular significance. Ifm willing to concede that I missed something integral here, but nonetheless I found them jarring and wished that Grant had stuck to writing in one tense to show the present tense of the novel.

(I was sent a free copy of this book by the publishers)
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on 4 April 2011
We Had it So Good - Linda Grant

By Caroline Auckland [Free copy sent by Publisher]

Welcome to the fictional world of Linda Grant.
In her best novel yet, the reader is introduced to Stephen Newman, a Rhodes Scholar who travels across the Ocean with the future President- Bill Clinton to his own future and indeed his own past.

As each character is constructed and deconstructed, Grant envelopes the reader in a sensory journey of lifetimes. The fragrance of the 60's tumbles out of the pages, the patchouli oil, the Afghan waist coats smelling of goats, giving way to Roses, Geraniums , Chanel and Dior perfume of later family life and affairs.

The fur coats of Stephen's father-

'The heavy headless bodies in the darkness' become Grant's metaphors for the personas the characters wear as they develop. A dress describes a person. It can be thrown out of the window and that person can disappear.' Shoes bear the imprint of the foot and are practically part of the body'.

The reader grows old with the Characters.

Graces's potential aborted by her Father. His actions condeming her to a lifetime of searching the World only to return to the place She was trying to leave. To allow nature , which her Mother nutured to take over.

Andrea, through Psycotherapy gives neuroses and repressions room to be aired- but contains them under lock and key.

Stephen seems to be carried along by his belief:

'Nobody of his generation- was born to die, except by Accident.
Life was extraordinary, the only acceptable condition.
Life is my Birthright.'

His birthright he believes, comes from his and his known Father's past, but in his name-Newman, he is in fact a New Man , constructed not by his past, but his Father's attempt to have a fresh start.

You will need a notebook to hand. Grant delivers sentences that hit hard and deserve to be savoured. They belong to the Characters but have resonance in the wider World.

On the World War:

'That's what the War was like, full of What-Might-have Beens'

On Parents:

'They had turned themselves into walls and doors.
The doors had been carefully locked.'

On Family:

'A condition that everyone understands to be a lifelong prison from which there is no escape or parole.'

This is a novel of Youth, Innocence, Denial, love , loss and acceptance.

Read it, be moved and reflect.

It will take your breath away.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 5 July 2015
This is a very well crafted book which chronicles the lives of a family and associated friends in a well paced, plausible way. The harassers are well drawn and I particularly like the ways in which certain outside events are introduced without fanfare. But oh my dear! Would a Tavistock trained psychotherapist take her eat friends a client and insist that the friend do so as a condition of living in her house. Of course not, And would that therapist keep "session notes" when her father in law discloses a lifelong secret! Of course not! These two grossly implausible poetic licenses marred for me what is, otherwise, an excellent book.
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