Monday, February 14, 2011
We Had It So Good
This is a novel designed to speak to the baby boomer generation. But even if you don’t happen to remember the 1960s, it’s so acutely observed, so witty and wise, so unflinchingly truthful that it will almost certainly have something to say to you.
We Had It So Good covers 40 years in the life of Stephen Newman, the son of hard-working immigrants, who sails away from California and arrives at Oxford University in time for the final excesses of the 1960s – free love, LSD and beautiful girls who smell of patchouli oil.
Stephen ends up marrying one of the girls, Andrea, to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam war and together they have children who refuse to believe the tales of their parents’ wild youth - writing for underground magazines, living in a London squat etc. “These are just stories they tell us to make us think that once upon a time they were interesting,” says son Max.
This is a book about growing up, growing old and becoming respectable. It’s about just how fast you can whizz through your own life until you end up barely recognising yourself anymore. Stephen is 50 before he knows it, Andrea is facing the menopause, they are middle-aged and middle-class. They haven’t changed the world or rebelled against the values of their parent’s generation the way they thought they might.
The story has many elements in common with Grant’s previous work - poignant family relationships, Jewishness, immigrants, clothes - but they are incidental enough for it not to seem that she is repeating herself. With humour and playfulness she avoids falling into the sorts of clichés it’s nearly impossible to avoid when writing about the hippy generation. And consistently she writes characters that are recognisable from real life.
Her central message is that this generation, who thought nothing bad was ever going to happen to them, have been living in a fool’s paradise. Stephen’s first clue is 9/11 but there are other portents – like his best friend Ivan with his New York investment scheme and the shares that mysteriously always keep rising. In the end it turns out Stephen’s whole life has been founded on a lie.
We Had It So Good is broad in scope and immensely readable. Grant’s written some terrific books – I think this one is her tour de force.
Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, (Her most recent, Recipe for Life was published in 2010, and her new novel The Villa Girls - Orion - is being published in April this year), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 13 February, 2011.