Saturday, May 28, 2011

Linda Grant: "We Had It So Good"

Time goes by. You're young and have no serious plans. You establish something: a marriage? A job? A life? Suddenly you are aging, or just plain old. Strangers clearly see that you aren't you. But you know you are really the same person you have always been.

Fleeting perceptions that current reality isn't reality are indescribable. But in her latest novel We Had It So Good Linda Grant perfectly captures this sense of time flying by, of change and permanence in conflict. She describes Stephen Newman, her main character in the 1950s: a child in Los Angeles playing in his father's fur-storage business. It's the 60s/70s: Stephen goes to England on a Rhodes scholarship, meets a group of hippie types, is "sent down" from Oxford for making LSD in a research lab. He lives in a "squat." Before he can think, years pass and he and his wife -- one of the girls from the group -- have a beautiful house, children, and a better-than-middle class lifestyle. His wife becomes a psychoanalyst; he becomes a BBC producer. How has he stayed in England so long?

Stephen, the displaced American, has a Jewish immigrant father who came through Ellis Island and a Cuban mother who regrets the way her native land must have changed. His main sense of them is of their great love for him: the English girls he meets have no similar family memory. His mother never goes back to Cuba, but his father at age 90 takes him on a trip to the village in Poland where he lived 80 years before; eventually his father shares a long-concealed truth about his origins and the story he's always told, but not with Stephen, rather with his wife.

Historic events that we readers recognize take their toll. It's the 90s: a man that Stephen once met on the way to be a Rhodes scholar is President of the US. It's the 00s: he thinks his friends have all escaped the terrorist bombing on the London tube, but his daughter is devastated by its effect on her secret lover. His friend from hippie days is a very rich man thanks to an investment guy in New York that never loses money. At the end of the book we can see what's coming to him. We can see so much.

Linda Grant -- already one of my "heroes" -- does it all through her wonderful characterization of Stephen, his wife, their friends, their two children, their parents, and the world that they live in. The whirl of time flying by is remarkably portrayed. Her book When I Lived in Modern Times captured a historical moment effectively and vividly, and she's now done it again.

No comments:

Post a Comment