Now in paperback from the acclaimed author of the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Clothes on Their Backs—a hugely satisfying, exuberant novel about the generation that came of age during the 1970s.
Stephen Newman’s children find it hard to believe that their father once dressed up in Marilyn Monroe’s furs, cooked acid at Oxford and lived with their mother, Andrea, in an anarchist collective. Quite often, Stephen finds it hard to believe himself. Born to immigrant parents in sunny Los Angeles, Stephen never imagined that he would spend his adult life under the gray skies of London, would marry and stay married and would watch his children grow into people he cannot fathom. Over forty years he and his friends have built lives of comfort and success, until the events of late middle age and the new century force them to realize that they have always existed in a fool’s paradise. Linda Grant’s utterly absorbing novel about the generation that came of age during the 1970s reveals the truth about growing up and growing older and once again displays her uncanny ability to illuminate our times.
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This reading group guide forWe Had it So Good includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set between the United States and the United Kingdom, Man Booker short-listed author Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good is a sweeping history of the evolution of the baby-boomer generation. In 1968 Stephen Newman, the son of an immigrant Californian, leaves America for Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. There his world evolves, as he, his future wife Andrea, and their friends come-of-age during the hazy 1970s. With humor and coruscating insight, We Had It So Good is an unfailingly tender portrait of a family and an era.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
There are a number of catastrophic events that hang over the social landscape throughout the narrative—including the remnants of WWII, Vietnam, the September 11 attacks, the terrorist bombing of the London tube, and the political strife witnessed by Marianne outside of Bosnia. How does disaster shape the characters in We Had it So Good?
On page 17, Marianne tells her brother that “you cannot rely on them. Parents, by definition, are liars.” Do you agree? Does her statement make you rethink the validity of Stephen and Andrea’s perspectives?
Should Si have told Stephen the truth of his emigration into the U.S.? Once Andrea knew his secret, should she have been the one to divulge his story? What did you make of Stephen’s “numb” reaction to reading his father’s therapy file and discovering the truth?
On page 300, considering her analysis of Grace, Andrea thinks, “…of course, it’s in childhood that we are building our neuroses, and God forbid, if you are abused and neglected, something can go badly wrong so early that it can never be put right.” How do formative childhood events affect the characters in the book? Consider Stephen trying on the mink stole, Andrea’s froggy day, Grace’s strange upbringing, Max’s deafness, and Marianne being called fat. Do the characters ever break free of their childhood trauma? Were you reminded of any specific moments or experiences from your own childhood?
Linda Grant employs a unique narrative style throughout We Had it So Good, switching perspectives within the same chapter and dedicating entire chapters to the first-person narration of Grace. How did the shifting voice affect your reading? Did you feel you gained greater insight into Grace and the others?
Grace maintains that she is more liberated and more in touch with the world than Ivan, Stephen, and Andrea. Is there something to envy about her lifestyle? Is there something to pity?
National identity plays an important role in the book. Discuss how nationality influences each character. Consider Stephen’s Americanism in England, Si’s emigrant history, Andrea’s trip to America, and Stephen’s mother’s Cuban idealism in comparison to Grace’s views.
How did Stephen and Andrea change from young hippies smoking on the lawn into a successful BBC producer and a respected psychotherapist? How does the couple handle this success? What do you think their former selves would think of their current lives in the “blur of middle age and child rearing”?
On page 320, as Stephen reflects on their youthful, utopian values he asks Ivan: “But most of it was dross. What did we accomplish?” Ivan replies, “We’re all condemned to live on our own times, our little period of history.” Do you agree with Stephen? Was anything actually accomplished? Was there some lasting validity from their beliefs that helped shape their adult lives?
Discuss romantic relationships and the nature of love in the narrative. Consider Stephen/Andrea, Stephen’s infidelity, Ivan/Simone, Max/Cheryl, and Marianne/Janek. What makes a lasting love? What ruins it?
The friendship between Grace and Andrea is one of the key relationships in the book. Describe their relationship in particular and, more generally, the importance and role of female friendship in women’s lives. What do you think draws Grace and Andrea to one another? Discuss their friendship in relation to the end of the book.
Did the meaning of the title, We Had It So Good, change for you after you finished reading? Why or why not? Do Stephen and Andrea appreciate the good fortune of their upbringing, education, and “moment in history”?
Why is Stephen unable to accept Andrea’s sickness and imminent death? Why does he take solace in the Internet?
On page 205, Stephen tells his children that the whole point of 60s culture was to live an “authentic life.” Does anyone in the novel achieve this? According to Stephen, what makes something authentic? Is the past just a narrative/story?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
Make a list of the ideals and beliefs you held when you were young. Include political leanings, theories, and doctrines you may have subscribed to. Discuss with your book club where you stand on those issues now, and how long you maintained these ideas about the world. Do any of these notions still appeal to you?
Read Linda Grant’s Man-Booker short-listed novel The Clothes on Their Backs, about a young, sheltered girl’s strong desire to live and experience live more fully after she meets her charismatic uncle. What themes seem to prevail in Grant’s writing?
Perform your own photo experiment and try to capture the things that fascinate you in a picture. Share your photos with your book club and discuss the nature of Marianne’s work, and her choice of subjects.
Visit someplace foreign to you. Document your feelings upon first arriving. Is there a point at which you assimilate? Do you always feel like an outsider? If you’ve moved from where you grew up, visit your place of origin. Do the myths and perspectives you held about that locale still hold true? Discuss how time changes your view of the past and present.
Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and the Lettre Ulysses Prize for the Art of Reportage in 2006. Her most recent novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. She writes for TheGuardian, TheTelegraph, and Vogue.