10:59am

Tue April 26, 2011
Books We Like

'We Had It So Good': Cherishing Lost Youth In London

British author Linda Grant's fifth novel, We Had It So Good, is a sobering exploration of what happens when four relatively privileged members of the swinging sixties grow up. It follows Stephen, an American documentary maker; his British wife Andrea, a psychotherapist; and their British best friends, Ivan, an anarchist turned ad man, and Grace, an itinerant free spirit. All, with the exception of Grace, become ensconced in 21st-century lifestyles that don't come close to the overly philosophical and rebellious plans they had for themselves decades earlier. That last may come as no surprise — the title of the book itself is a kind of spoiler alert — but Grant's characters have plenty of refreshing things to say about life as baby boomers.

Grant's discordant foursome, which shares the spotlight with the help of Grant's close third-person narration, meets at Oxford University in the 1960s. Stephen, a promising scientist just arrived from California, is somewhat oblivious to the changes in the air. Soon he's faced with an onslaught of social and political ideas from his new friends — ideas at odds with the hard-working, family-oriented generation that raised them. Stephen is swept away by these new friends, but seeks solace in Andrea, the least opinionated of the bunch, and soon they're married.

Over the course of his life, the ideological differences between the preceding generation and his own come to preoccupy Stephen far more than his peers. Most of the time, he is not pining for the hedonistic sixties, but worrying instead that, unlike his parents' generation, the baby boomers have come to stand for nothing in particular. Born in Los Angeles to first-generation immigrants, his mother from Cuba and his father from Poland, Stephen has a loving working-class upbringing. His favorite memory of his childhood is of being slapped by his father Si, who works in a fur warehouse, for trying on a pink stole belonging to Marilyn Monroe. It's a happy memory: Stephen sees the slap as a mark of affection, and the episode speaks to Si's dedication to his work and to the Newmans' thrill of being, in some small, behind-the-scenes way, a part of the excitement of Hollywood. He doesn't realize it at the time, but Stephen leaves America forever when he sets off for Oxford, and he entertains himself with thoughts of America — the greener pasture, what could have been — for the rest of his life.

Stephen loves and admires his parents, even after finding out about a darker chapter of his father's past, undoubtedly because Stephen never has to deal with any of the adversity his father faced. And by the time Stephen is middle-aged, he's acquired some skeletons of his own: kicking around with his friends at Oxford, he decides to start making acid, which eventually leads to his expulsion, and has significant repercussions on his career. Later, on a solo drive during a visit to southern California, away from his wife and children, he picks up a hitchhiker and sleeps with her in the back of his car. The girl is not exactly what Stephen is looking for, in the nervous malaise of young parenthood, but she comes close, with her "long hair swinging round her face, her tight jeans and cut-off top." Stephen is drawn to this "type," so distinct from his wife: she is "this Californian kind of girl who dresses simply and is fresh and natural and does not have too many complicated European ideas in her head."

Unlike her three friends, settled in London and taking jobs for money rather than simply pleasure, Grace takes to a vagabond lifestyle, the closest any of them gets to living out a sixties philosophy: she spends decades living in exotic locations, eschewing marriage and motherhood. But the others don't envy her, as her peregrination turns out to be an easy way to stop caring about people. In the hospital when Andrea's first child is born, Grace is there, the appointed godmother, smoking a cigarette. But soon she'll only be an occasional and troubling presence in the girl's life, breaking promises and leaving scars.

Andrea always welcomes Grace back with open arms, but Stephen holds her at a distance, and doesn't keep his opinions of her to himself. His hostility can only partly be attributed to envy, since despite his persistent, low-level confusion about how quickly time has passed, Stephen is content with his life and devoted to his family, and wonders when Grace is going to grow up. A champion of his forebears, Stephen worries that the sixties had been all whimsy and no foresight: that it gave way to events and circumstances that could not be easily undone or paved over. None of these characters could be called unhappy about where the chips eventually fell, but asked if they're happy and they would rather talk around the question for hours. Mercifully, their analysis, if sometimes too fearful of difference, is more intriguing than a straight answer. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.