Monday, January 24, 2011

We Had it So Good by Linda Grant

Linda Grant's illuminating portrait of babyboomers is a cautionary tale, says Joanna Briscoe

The Guardian, Saturday 22 January 2011

Spare a thought for the young. Tripling university fees followed by a debt-ridden decade or two. Unthinkable property prices, unemployment and slashed pensions. No wonder so many in their 20s bitterly resent the baby-boomers, those grizzled free-thinking fat cats who managed to be born in peacetime, live it up, rebel and yet still become filthy rich. So here's the perfect novel to feed the fury – or to remind these privileged putative revolutionaries of exactly how they ended up owning houses in Islington worth £2m.

In We Had it So Good, Linda Grant examines a generation which, in her own words, "never fully understood its own fortune". And what a rum portrait she paints. Her protagonist is the somewhat feckless Stephen Newman, American son of a Cuban mother and Polish father, industrious immigrants settled in California. Planning to be a great scientist, Stephen avoids the draft and travels on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in 1969, his fellow travelling scholar one Bill Clinton.

Once at Oxford, the shiny young American with his untamed curls and black beard begins to eye up the students living next door. These are Grace, a wildly dressed counterculture cliché who eventually becomes a sad old drifter, quite out of step with later decades, and Andrea, an emotionally neglected redhead whose English hotelier parents have basically abandoned her. Surrounded by a crew of self-styled anarchists and dropouts, Stephen starts making and selling acid to keep himself and Andrea in LPs and loon pants, and before long he is sent down. He marries Andrea, the arrangement as he sees it "an immigration wedding to keep him out of the army", while she has married for love.

Against all expectation, the marriage lasts a lifetime, and the relatively predictable story of Stephen and Andrea, their relationship, careers and family, forms the backbone of a novel that continues at a leisurely – indeed, appropriately laid-back – pace. The couple become lodgers in a dilapidated north London sprawl, and a vividly convincing portrait of the city through the decades follows. Andrea trains as a psychotherapist, and Stephen drifts into a perfectly successful career as a BBC science documentary maker. They end up buying the multiple-roomed house, thus ensuring their long-term fortune, and have two children, Marianne and Max.

Full review at The Guardian.

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