Stephen Newman, the protagonist of Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant’s new novel We Had It So Good, is a prototypical baby boomer, and the novel makes an ambitious attempt to document the lives of that generation (or at least the college-educated and privileged part of it).
Born to immigrant parents in mid-century Los Angeles, Newman appears in the book’s opening passage as a nine-year-old child visiting his father’s workplace, a cold-storage locker filled with the furs of Hollywood celebrities. On impulse, Newman tries on Marilyn Monroe’s champagne mink stole, redolent, in Grant’s wonderfully evocative phrase, with the “fragrance of hot pearls.”
This wins him a smack on the back of the head and a heated torrent of abuse in his father’s native language, “with few vowels and many syllables, which seemed to get stuck in the speaker’s throat, choking him.” For Grant, language is always a bit problematic, both conveying and concealing truth.
The incident with the stole was not Stephen Newman’s only brush with celebrity. Later, crossing the Atlantic on the way to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, Newman has an encounter with “a big blond Southern boy with a veneer of East Coast sophistication.” The big blond is Bill Clinton, although Stephen’s grown son later rejects this and his father’s other prized stories, seeing them as attempts to pretend that baby boomers were more interesting than they really were.
This moment of inter-generational doubt is a signpost to one of Grant’s ongoing concerns, the elusiveness of truth. By the end of the story, for example, Stephen is an aging and disillusioned boomer learning that his own father’s stories about how he came to America were false.
Stephen never sees Clinton again, but his story continues to track the most significant events in his generation’s history, from the Vietnam-era draft, which prompts his decision to remain in England after he is expelled from Oxford for cooking LSD in the school laboratories, to heady experiments in communal living and radical politics that faded, for so many, into the soporific longueurs of middle-class respectability, and to late-life confrontations with mortality, from 9/11 to cancer wards.
Much of this is richly observed and imagined, and the characters are complex, well rounded and believable. Grant has much to tell us about class and character, history and human frailty, and she has created a story that captures much of the truth about a certain time, place and class setting as the Age of Aquarius morphed into the Age of Hedge Funds.
Although the characters belong to a group that once would have sung along to the Who’s anthem My Generation and its arrogant line, “hope I die before I get old,” most of them didn’t manage that escape. This splendid novel is about how those survivors aged.
There is one caveat. This reviewer can fully understand the temptation Grant felt to have the most radical of the seventies commune crowd become a plump, complacent advertising executive in the new century, but it is a temptation, however delicious, that should have been resisted. This book is too good to require cheap irony.
That said, Grant’s use of free indirect discourse, the narrative device that infuses a first-person sensibility into an apparently third-person account, is brilliant. Using this demanding approach, Grant succeeds in creating a vivid sense of the inner lives of Stephen, his friends and family. This book, by an acclaimed British writer who did her graduate studies in Canada, is one baby boomers will read with rueful recognition. As for younger readers, they may find it an interesting historical romance.
Tom Sandborn is an aging baby boomer and war resister who settled in Vancouver rather than London. Borrowed from the GLOBE AND MAIL
Published Tuesday, May. 31, 2011