We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

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 the 1960s and 70s. We learn about Stephen’s time at Oxford University where he met his future wife Andrea, how he made LSD in the chemistry lab, lived in a commune, went to the Isle of Wight festival and ate macrobiotic food. As we move forward through the 1980s and 1990s we see the early days of computers and the internet, and learn what it was like to be a photo-journalist reporting on the Bosnian War. And finally, we are brought right up to date with the tragedies of 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings.

As the years go by we see how Stephen and Andrea have changed over time, have had to abandon some of their dreams, and are leading more conventional lives – 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. The viewpoint switches from chapter to chapter allowing us to see things through the eyes of Stephen, Andrea, and several of the other characters. Sometimes I couldn’t immediately tell who was narrating, but this seemed to be intentional. The story also moves around in time, showing us the significant moments that have shaped the lives of each of the characters.

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. And equally interesting when the family went to America and this time it was Andrea who had to readjust. 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 post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Andrea’s best friend, Grace, who is quite a sad and solitary figure, still clinging to her ideals and travelling aimlessly round the world on her own, running away from her past and searching for something unobtainable. 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!

We Had It So Good was the January selection for the Virago Book Club. I received a copy from Virago for review.

8 thoughts on “We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

  1. Pat says:

    Have been looking for reviews of this book as I enjoyed one of Linda Grants others. I lived through all the things you mentioned so think this might bring back some memories for me! Thanks for the interesting review.

  2. Old English Rose says:

    It does look as though we had a very similar reaction to this book. Like you, I think it probably works best for people who shared the experiences of the characters. It did strike me as a rather unusual choice for the Virago book club, as it was rather different to anything I’ve read that they’ve published before. Perhaps they were trying to widen the appeal of the book club (or at least not put people off) by starting off with a book which is fairly gender-neutral?

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it did seem an unusual book to launch the book club with, but you’re probably right that it should appeal to a wide range of people. I did enjoy it but I’m disappointed that I couldn’t identify more with the central characters.

  3. Teresa (Lovely Treez Reads) says:

    I think you and I had similar reading experiences of this novel, Helen, although I have previously read and enjoyed Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs so I was used to her writing style which can sometimes be quite journalistic. It is certainly a very thought-provoking novel. I was born in the 60s and therefore a bit later than the protagonists but it’s certainly a very readable novel and provides plenty of food for thought. I think it was an interesting introductory novel for The Virago Book Club and I’m looking forward to reading South Riding which will be very different indeed!

    • Helen says:

      This is the first of Linda Grant’s books that I’ve read, but I would like to try another one. It’s good to know that you enjoyed The Clothes on Their Backs.
      I haven’t started reading South Riding yet but I’m looking forward to it too!

  4. Sue says:

    Having finally read the book I thought I’d leave a comment as I am of a similar age to Stephen, Andrea and Grace but not a part of the Oxbridge nor Islington set! I did enjoy the book and recognised some of the ‘set pieces’ of history but they were a background to the plot only. Didn’t see many of the twists and turns coming and was desparate to get to the end. Thought provoking indeed. A book for Virago? Well although Stephen was the central character the two women were very strong characters, making the most of their lives, in very different ways, from shaky foundations. In fact all the women were survivors. I haven’t read any of her previous novels but will look out for them.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it, Sue. Andrea and Grace were both very strong characters – and more interesting than Stephen, in my opinion. I thought Marianne was an intriguing character too.

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