‘We Had It So Good’ by Linda Grant

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled when I found out that Virago, my favourite publishers, had decided to launch a book club this year.  For one reason or another I’m not particularly good at reading contemporary fiction, tending to stick to older books, and this seemed like a good way of broadening my horizons a bit.  I eagerly signed up and was lucky enough to be selected as one of the First Look reviewers for the club, meaning I have a selection of books coming my way from the very kind publishers.  We Had It So Good by Linda Grant is the Virago Book Club’s first selection.

We Had It So Good is the story of Stephen and his family.  Born in America to a Cuban mother and Polish father, Stephen gains a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford in the 1960′s.  There he meets Grace, Andrea and Ivan and together they take a lot of drugs and talk about how they could change the world until Stephen is drafted by the American army to fight in Vietnam.  In order to avoid what he sees as certain death, he marries Andrea and they move to a squat in London while Grace disappears to travel the world.  As they grow up, settle down and have children, their concerns change and they become more and more detached from their idealistic younger selves.

Had this not been a book club pick I would almost certainly never have read it.  Aging hippies becoming increasingly middle aged and middle class isn’t really my thing, and I still think that after reading Grant’s book.  Perhaps I’m just too far removed from that time period and way of thinking (I’m even younger than Stephen and Andrea’s children in the novel) for it to have any resonance with me; I’m sure this would be a far more interesting book for someone who had lived through the same experiences and developed in a similar way to the central characters.  As it was, I found them to be intensely irritating, although I had flashes of sympathy for them from time to time, particularly in the way that Andrea’s story was concluded.  This might have been intentional, I don’t know, but it didn’t make the book a particularly enjoyable read for me.

Far more interesting, in my opinion, are the peripheral characters.  I thought that Grant manages to inject really intriguing character traits into Max, Marianne and the various parents who appear throughout the book.  All of them are distinct and different and I wish that more time had been given to them and to their concerns rather than to the ineffectual, dissatisfied Stephen and Andrea, although obviously these two represent the framework which holds all of the others together.  I thought that Grace’s sections, while initially confusing (who is this disembodied first person narrator suddenly having a chapter?  Why?) were effective and, once it was revealed why they were there, a clever way of weaving her own story into the main body of the novel and showing how everything was intertwined.

One thing that was a new experience for me with this book was reading about events that I’ve lived through.  A quick glance at my book list will tell you that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, so it was a real change to read something that goes right up to the present day.  I thought that Grant tackles this skilfully, allowing the reader to instantly recognise what is going on and which crucial world events have occurred without ever being obvious about it.  September 11th, for example, is mentioned without the date or the words ‘World Trade Centre’ being used and yet it is abundantly clear what has just happened.  Likewise with the July 7th bombings on the London Underground.

On the whole I found the writing in We Had It So Good to be effective and well thought out, even if the story wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.  There was, however, one stylistic device that I found incredibly annoying and that is the use of occasional chapters or sometimes just individual paragraphs in the present tense for no discernible reason.  I could understand it (although I would still find it irritating) if the change in tense reflected a shift to more immediate concerns or continuous actions, but the present tense paragraphs seem to be largely random and have no particular significance.  I’m willing to concede that I missed something integral here, but nonetheless I found them jarring and wished that Grant had stuck to writing in one tense to show the present tense of the novel.

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant.  Published by Virago, 2010, pp. 345.  First edition.

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2 Responses to “‘We Had It So Good’ by Linda Grant”

Comment from Helen
Time February 9, 2011 at 9:27 am

I’ve just reviewed this book for the Virago Book Club too and we seem to have had similar feelings about it. I also found it hard to identify with Stephen and Andrea (like you I’m closer to Max and Marianne’s ages) and I thought the minor characters such as Grace and Si were far more interesting. I noticed the switching from past to present tense too and although it didn’t really bother me I couldn’t see any reason for it either.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time February 11, 2011 at 11:22 am

The tense switching thing happens to be one of my pet peeves in books (although I’ve just read a book where it works really well, so I may have to revise my opinions somewhat), but it’s reassuring to know that you couldn’t see any reason for it either even if you didn’t find it as irritating as I did. Now over to read your review!

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