Linda Grant's new novel, We Had It So Good, begins in sunshine. There's the epigraph: 'He had like many another been born in full sunlight and lived to see night fall.' (That's from Waugh's Men at Arms.) Then the first image: Stephen Newman in his shorts, aged nine, on the 'most exciting day' of his life - a day spent in the fur storage depot in which his father looks after Marilyn Monroe's mink. The sun follows him to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford: 'It was the summer the astronauts walked on the moon. There was nothing more glamorous than an astronaut, not even the film stars with their minks.' 'It was the summer' and its variations - 'It was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced' (The Pregnant Widow); 'It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk ... confided to me that, at the age of 71, he was having an affair with a 34-year-old cleaning woman' (The Human Stain); 'That summer of '76, what with the heat and the flies and the endless melodies of ice-cream vans, things happened in a haze' (White Teeth) - is a useful way of doing recent history, of bringing the personal to the political and surface to depth. And even though the formula can start in the third person and slide into the first, it needn't. As a form of words, it's ordinary, so for it to zing there has to be some sort of voice behind it: 'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York' (The Bell Jar). Good ones can do ordinary and extraordinary at once; they can do the novel in miniature. Grant seems to know what the sentence can do for her but fails to do anything special with it, other than set the scene. Even the thought seems run of the mill: isn't an astronaut already a type of movie star?
LRB 31 March 2011 | PDF Download