When I finished reading this novel, I was struck by its similarity to Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I didn’t enjoy Freedom, as you might have read in a previous post, but I enjoyed this book and so hesitate likening it to Freedom. The reason for doing so, though, is that both are about middle-class life and middle-aged people. (I am both middle-class and middle-aged, which is probably one of the reasons I can relate to books like this.) They both contain characters reflecting on their lives and wondering how they’ve got to where they are. Both protagonists are not particularly interesting either. But whereas I found Freedom to be boring and couldn’t relate to the characters, I found We Had It So Good to be a good, sometimes humorous, interesting book. It took me a while to get into it, but about a third of the way into a book, it grabbed me and I kept reading.
In fact, I bought the book because of the first page which contains the paragraph: ‘That day, he told his children, was the most exciting day of my life. That’s when I put on Marilyn Monroe‘s fur stole. And got thumped on the head by my old man when he saw what I was doing.” He was right about that – that was Stephen’s most exciting day of his life. Stephen lived an ordinary life but one in which he and his friends had it so easy – life in the 60s and 70s was easy for the baby boomers generation.
Stephen was born in California to a Polish father and a Cuban mother and his father was determined that his son will get further in life than he did. As luck would have it, Stephen was very intelligent and won a Rhodes Scholarship. Oxford paid for his passage over, however, Stephen’s father cashed in the ticket, gave his son the money, and told him to work his way over as a seaman.
England was a strange, cold land and Oxford even stranger – “a private members’ club’. Even having lived in England for years by the end of the book, Stephen still yearned for the warmth of California. Yet, as Grant writes, “Stephen Newman was likeable”, and he made friends with the ‘freaks’ who sat on the lawn and smoked joints. He worked in a laboratory, doing his research paper on ‘peptides’. One day, as he sat in the garden of his digs and smoked a joint, a head appeared over the wall and asked him to share his stash. Here we meet the other main characters of the novel: Grace, a haughtily beautiful woman in weird clothing; Andrea, smaller, plumper and with bad teeth, and Ivan, with mutton-chop sideburns, an Afghan waistcoat and pink bellbottoms.
Their life as students passed through a haze of dope and drugs; one of Stephen’s bright ideas was to try making acid in the lab. To do so, however, he had to tear pages out of a book in the Bodleian Library to get the formula. His deed is discovered and he is sent down from Oxford.. During this time, he also received call-up papers from the US Government for the Vietnam War. Stephen knew he would go home to America to die; he realised that Andrea ‘with her terrible teeth and green fingernails’, loved him and he married her to avoid being drafted.
Surprisingly, his and Andrea’s marriage worked (mostly due to her determination, I think). The book tracks their life as a married couple, first of all living in a squat (Andrea being the only one who gets gainfully employed), then moving into rented rooms and finally buying the same house. Andrea qualified as a psychologist and had a steady practice, and Stephen landed up as a successful documentary maker for the BBC. Throughout, however, a sense of dislocation and disquiet niggled Stephen – in fact, he’s a pain in the arse a lot of the time.
When he was fifty-five years old, Stephen ‘for the first time understood that nothing bad had ever happened to him. He lived in a house worth a fortune with his wife of thirty years. His children’s lives had worked out: no one was on drugs or in prison; no one had died of Aids. Everyone he knew led a nice life, and on and on it was all supposed to go.’ But then the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened and the tube bomb attacks in London, and Stephen’s whole life changed. Suddenly he realised his whole generation believed that nothing bad was supposed to happen.
Grace stays an interesting character throughout the book – Andrea’s best friend, I suppose she could be called. She was beautiful, brittle and rude, when Stephen met her, and she drifted in and out of their family life, always a loner. Towards the end of the book, she has become unkempt, eccentric; an unlikely companion for Stephen’s father (another interesting character) who came to live with them. Stephen and Andrea’s children are well depicted by Grant: Marianne was a lonely, chubby child who ended up being a war photographer, and fell in love with a field surgeon, a married man. He ended the relationship after he was injured in the tube attacks and she was left stunned and hurt. Max spent the first seven years of his life deaf; only his sister noticed. Once his ears had grommets put in, he was exposed to the noise of the world; he hated the coarseness of it. He landed up being a magician, working with his hands without having to talk much, and married a deaf woman.
I found myself irritated with Stephen a lot of the time, and wanted to give him a kick up the bum and say, ‘just look at how good you’ve got it,’ but I also could relate to that middle-age crisis where suddenly you stop, look at your life and think, “How on earth have I got here?” On the last page of the book, Grant has Stephen say: “I don’t understand … How does it come to this? We were supposed to be so special, we were going to change everything and it turns out we’re just the same …”
I experienced that when I got divorced: I would wake up sometimes, virtually unable to believe that I had become yet another person to get divorced. My marriage was supposed to have been untouchable, special. I thought we were a unique couple and it turned out we were so ordinary. This feeling of disbelief is what hit Stephen and made him sit up and look at the life he had taken for granted all along.
Linda Grant defies one of the rules of writing – keep tenses consistent – and sometimes even changes them within a paragraph. It didn’t bother me; it was confusing now and then, but for the most part, it brought an immediacy to the writing. I would highly recommend this book. As I said, I found it slow going in the beginning, but it is worth getting through the first part for the satisfaction of a book that is well written and makes you reflect long after you have finished it.