We Had It So Good by Linda Grant


Stephen Newman grew up in Los Angeles, son of a Polish immigrant father and Cuban immigrant mother. His father worked in a fur storage operation and an important moment in Stephen's life is his father's whack, administered as Stephen was dancing around in Marilyn Monroe's mink stole, a story referred to more than once by the adult Stephen. We hear nothing of his college years, and the story picks up when as a Rhodes Scholar, he arrives at Oxford. He seems to have been surprisingly uninformed about the world of Oxford and he is put off by the mores and the damp and dark and spends his first year working on peptides in a lab. 

Eventually he moves into a slum apartment and meets two women, one described as a pre-Raphaelite redhead. He becomes friends with them and their anarchist friends and we hear the story of his first acid trip. Thinking he could become an entrepreneur, he TEARS PAGES OUT OF A LIBRARY BOOK that tell how to make acid. Now he has lost me. For a time he and his friends prosper selling his product, but of course such a heinous crime against the library will not go unpunished and he is kicked out of his program.  He marries the redhead Andrea to avoid the US draft and despite the odds they make a successful marriage.

After a few years of working as a science writer, he takes the family to California to take up his work as a scientist.  He is shocked to learn from his college professor that he will not be able to just step back into this world. At this point I am losing interest in a character that is not making sense, but I soldier on. Stephen becomes a BBC science filmmaker, and before you know it, he's in his 50s.  We hear the stories of his two children and their difficulties.  Andrea takes in her crazy friend from Oxford days. They remain friends with Ivan, the one-time anarchist who is now in advertising. His mother dies, his father comes to Britain for an extended stay.

Today I went to a memorial celebration for a friend who wrote scholarly works accessible enough to be positively reviewed in The New York Times. One speaker said their connection was a late-in-life friendship, when all the "stuff" was past, the ambition, financial worries, and though he didn't say this, perhaps he was thinking of family matters.  What was present was the burnished love of writing, of scholarship; the friend cherished their connection that focused on the joy of intellectual pursuit. I was struck by the contrast to the characters in this book, whose "stuff" always trumped any serious undertaking.  Presumably the author is making the case Stephen's generation is incapable of going beyond the material matters that concern us all, unlike the previous generation, "the greatest generation".  

We (Stephen was born in 1946, a year after me) have had it awfully good, and public life is a mess, but I want to keep in mind what has changed for the better in my lifetime.  I'll forgo a list, but blogs, well, I must mention blogs.

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