There’s a very clear, concise disclaimer at the beginning of Linda Grant’s new novel – ‘This novel is inspired by a particular time in my own life, but the characters and the events are the product of my imagination.’ Whether under instructions from the legal department or because of her own concerns she reiterates it in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, and I’m not surprised. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.
Narrated by Adele Ginsberg, it begins with her chequered history. Adele is the spoiled daughter of an exuberant charmer who robbed, conned and embezzled to give her everything she wanted and a mother who looks grimly on while finding solace in her friends, united in their stoic acceptance of their men and all their faults. When one of his schemes backfires, her father hangs himself and Adele’s life changes: no more promise of a glittering future. Then she hatches a scheme worthy of her father – she and her mother send a copy of her prize-winning poem to every Ginsberg they know, including Allen from whom she receives a postcard addressing her as ‘cousin’. She sends a copy to a northern university (Grant went to York – see what I mean about the legal department) in the hope that they will ignore her dodgy A-Levels and admit her, which they do. Cue snort from H, my very own in-house academic – but this was the ’70s. Set in what might as well be the middle of nowhere, the university leaves its students to their own devices – none of this loco in parentis stuff as Adele discovers later. Soon a group of friends forms: Gillian, the innocent ripe for radicalisation; Dora, the fiercely idealistic Marxist bent on revolution; Rose, quietly well-connected but determinedly socialist; Bobby, gay and equally determinedly decadent; while Adele remains the enigmatic outsider – a little hard-nosed – who never reveals her own past. Early on she encounters the androgynous Evie/Stevie and becomes fascinated with the ethereally beautiful Evie apparently in thrall to her dominating male counterpart who has an opinion on everything. What lies behind the pivotal event that takes place at Adele’s twentieth birthday party and the mystery of Evie/Stevie is finally unravelled forty years later when their relationship is revealed as very much more complex than it first appeared.
The structure of Grant’s novel is one which I find perennially appealing – a group of young people form intense friendships then we follow them through their lives into adulthood as they deal with vicissitudes of life. Meg Wolitzer did this beautifully last year in The Interestings. Here, Adele and her fascination with Evie is the constant while other characters flit in and out of her life. Towards the end, the surviving members of her group are brought together satisfyingly at a university reunion although Brian seemed a little out of place to me, perhaps brought into make a few points. The characterisation is spot on – readers of a certain age are likely to find themselves both smiling and cringing in recognition – and there’s a nicely wry wit running through it all. As she did in We Had it So Good, Grant has things to say about the boomers and takes the odd swipe at modern life too. It’s a very satisfying read – I wonder what she’ll have in her sights next.
This isn’t the first novel which made me come over all nostalgic this year. Louise Levene’s excellent The Following Girls took me back to my school days in February. Are there any novels that resonated with your own childhood or youth recently, and if so, would you like to share them with me?