If you have read the year in books posts you've probably guessed by now that I'm bit of a sucker for those state of the nations novels, you know the kind big events and themes told though everyday lives, the kind of book that American authors seem to just do so much better than those in the UK.
Linda Grant's novel has a go at south of England version. Stephen Newman comes over to Oxford on the same boat as Bill Clinton and starts life as a Rhodes scholar mainly to avoid the draft. He soon meets quiet Andrea and loud opinionated Grace. He takes first Andrea's virginity and then her hand in marriage as his visa runs out. He and his friends have big ideas , they feel like the golden generation ready to right wrongs , re build society ,living by their high minded principles.
We Had It So Good follows Stephen and Andrea's 40 years of marriage, as slowly their ideals and dreams turn to a life of middle class privilege in Islington as their friends make money in property ,advertising and in Stephen's case the BBC. The novel intertwines their lives and those of their two children (a photographer and a magician) with the direct and indirect impact of 9/11, 7/7 and the Balkan wars.
None of the characters are particularly likable especially Stephen , but then that adds power to his realisation as middle age comes that the life he has built stands on shaky foundations . The only person who stays true to themselves is Grace whose opinionated selfishness remains even as her fading looks means that it becomes more and more difficult to get away with her behaviour. Ironically , when traged does strike it is Grace who comes through.
From the idealism of the student 60s through to the false comfort of the affluent 90s Grant keeps you hooked in. The diversions she takes ,with Grace and Stephen and Andrea's children as well as revisiting their relationships with their own parents adds a richness and depth. The only thing that is missing is that the whole thing is so serious it is only at the very end , the last paragraph that she leaves us with a sense of the absurdness of it all. Much as I loved the novel and it is a very good read, the ending made me realise that some light and shade would have made it even better and rung a little truer
you can buy We Had it So Good here