WE HAD IT SO GOOD
By Linda Grant
Scribner, 336 pages, $25
‘The personal is political” was the political headline for the international feminist movement, and it could just as well be the takeaway phrase of this intriguing new work by British novelist Linda Grant.
Chronicling three generations among families, Grant, a former journalist-turned-novelist known for her reportage and fictional accounts of lefty Jews in North London, writes here about a couple who were at Oxford together and lived their married life in Islington, a gentrified neighborhood of London similar to Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1990s. These were neighborhoods that went from seedy to chic, where former leftists became real estate millionaires and a certain sort of Jewish intellectual struggled for a settled sense of normalcy.
It is the 1960s, and Stephen Newman, a Jewish Los Angeleno, crosses the Atlantic as a Rhodes Scholar on his way to Oxford University, where he will meet his future wife, while avoiding the draft, experimenting with friends and drugs and, ironically, experiencing the American dream of his immigrant Eastern European Jewish father and non-Jewish Cuban mother, whom he leaves stateside in California.
Indeed, Newman embodies all the promise of America, planting newness in the old Europe. Grant, who has written about Jews and immigrants in earlier novels, has a keen sense of the ancestors we each carry within ourselves.
Stephen ends up in a relationship that leads to a happy marriage with the girl next door, carrying him and us all the way to the novel’s end. Andrea is a “solemn redheaded girl” whose British roots leave her unfamiliar with Stephen’s half-Jewish background. In fact, one senses that both of them are floating rootlessly through the decades, even as they try to connect to a cohort of friends and wrestle with their own childhood ghosts.
Grant has said that this novel is an exploration of her generation, those who came of age on the cusp of the 1960s, aiming to change the world. But it becomes clear as this story progresses that the influence they had was much more personal than it was political. In that sense, this is a feminist novel. Relations among men and women shift around so that the macho man of the 1960s, either fighting the war in Vietnam or dodging it, morphs into today’s metrosexual, an attentive and inquiring father.
Actually, it is the offspring of Stephen and Andrea’s marriage who live to the fullest this dictum of the personal being political. Their daughter Marianne emerges from a childhood slump to become a war photographer, transporting herself to Bosnia during the Yugoslav war of the 1990s, putting herself at risk for documentary photographs that put a spotlight on the war. Yet while she’s there, a romantic link-up with a doctor leads her into a personal crisis that forces her back home, into the cocoon of her family. And especially into close proximity to her brother and his new wife.
Max, their son, marries a woman who is deaf, and this seems to link him even more to his newborn son. Since his son depends on Max to hear him cry, Max becomes wedded to the child’s needs. It’s natural for Max, because when he was younger, his way of acting out in his family was to simulate deafness. Without acknowledging it, by writing his wife as someone who is, in fact, deaf, Grant gives Max a loving sense of obligation in his choice of mate.
When current events are mapped out in this novel, they appear more as cocktail — or LSD, or marijuana (depending on the decade) — banter than as a reality principle, linking the characters to engage with the world. There is a somewhat disturbing sense of malaise throughout that makes the characters feel like actors in a world they don’t control, ironic for an era in which those of the ’68 generation thought that their actions would change the world.
Andrea’s enduring 40-year friendship with a contrary Grace, after they were assigned adjacent rooms in college, is an aspect of the contingency that marks the lives of these characters. Despite her seeming idealism, Grace is an incredibly unappealing person, representing not only the worst excesses of her generation — wasted on drugs and dreams of Castro’s Cuba — but also a brutal indifference to her personal behavior. She acts horrendously toward Andrea and Stephen’s children, especially toward her young and overweight godchild, Marianne, who idolizes her.
Even the long-lasting marriage between Stephen and Andrea was “a game of chance,” as Andrea reports, with Stephen falling for the girl next door as much for convenience as for any other reason. Here is the one frustration of the novel: A reader may feel compelled to shake the book about, screaming at the characters to be actors rather than be acted upon, and for Grace to learn from her mistakes. It is left to Stephen to give their story some perspective:
Once they had talked about an alternative society. Now he understood there were only alternative realities. He thought about his parents, how little he really knew about them. They both came with a big story, of how they arrived in America, the two immigrants, who started from scratch and built new lives as Americans. It was possible, this narrative told him, for anyone to be reborn, to commence a new identity. It said, Believe in the future, and he always had. That was their precious gift to him, his birthright…
In this novel, the past is ever present, as children of all ages question their legacies and, while doing so, reinvent themselves.
Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently for the Forward. She is a member of Dissent magazine’s editorial board.