Tuesday, August 9, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on July 28th. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Since the economic downturn in 2008, there's a sense that quality of life for post-boomers in the West will never quite be what their parents or grandparents enjoyed. Most under 40 have confronted underemployment, dwindling pensions and a wounded public sphere, and there's a whiff of existential trepidation in the zeitgeist. Something's gone off-kilter with our story. We're no longer certain we'll get our happy ending.

It's rare, though, to find a narrative work of art that captures this cultural shift and what it's cost us on a personal level. Linda Grant's We Had It So Good does just that. Ostensibly, this novel gives us the story of the marriage of Stephen and Andrea. It follows the couple from their courtship in the late 60s, through having kids, establishing careers, and ultimately into late middle age. But Grant's eye for detail and narrative genius elevate the novel a notch, allowing it also to tell the story of the sliding shift in Western civilization from anti-materialist hippie ideals into the age of persuasion and mass commodification.

Much of the story's plot is told by Stephen to his kids in a series of mythologizing flashbacks. They're half meant as a vanity project, and half as another boomer attempt to create a solid identity out of a shifting life and community. In order to draw strong parallels between the narrative arc of Stephen and Andrea's marriage and that of Western society, Grant has created a colourful cast of characters who each embody some portion of what's driven society since the '60s. Many of these characters are given narrative rights within the story at some point, and the extra perspectives shed light on how Stephen and Andrea move from being students at prestigious English schools, to communal living, to owning a posh multi-story home in a gentrified London neighbourhood.

This tension between objectivity and myth-building drives the novel. All the main voices in the novel indulge in self-mythologizing, tying their particular story to whatever overarching social narrative best serves their purpose. As the personal narratives' integrity wear with use, a sense of unease besets the reader: If questionable motives and a lack of objectivity warp the most basic life stories, how can we be sure of anything we tell ourselves as a culture?

This sounds grim, doesn't it? In truth, We Had It So Good isn't always so dark, mostly because Grant has such profound empathy for her characters. Readers may not like them as people, but you have to respect them. After all, they're telling your story, too. This gentle handling lends the entire novel a poignant, epic feeling not unlike that evoked by the film American Beauty a decade or so ago. We Had It So Good is recommended to readers of character-driven literary fiction who relish a good family saga. It is especially recommended to those with a fascination for London and California in the 1960s.

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