Upstairs At The Party is the life and opinions of Adele, born in the 1950s to a Jewish family in Liverpool, the rebellious daughter of an adorable, unreliable, criminal father.
When he commits suicide, Adele is thrown against her will into the community of women, which she abhors: "From my father I learned that when men were around there was more of everything, more luxury and abundance, and that women had to learn forbearance in the face of their big appetites, and manage the domestic economy." Now she works at a perfume counter, and seethes. She ignores school (the many mothers and aunts she's saddled with reject it anyway, saying she ought to get married) and the exam board takes its revenge. But she writes to the head of English at one of the new universities taking shape, shows him a postcard she received from Allen Ginsberg, and is given a place (in those days, that wasn't fiction). Adele arrives at the new uni and makes friends. Or perhaps it's more truthful to say that you meet people at university and they are the ones you are stuck with for the rest of your life.
Writing about the undergraduate experience is difficult. Has anyone ever really done it well? There are deflating flashbacks to it in Plath's The Bell Jar. Mary McCarthy in The Group, in some ways a novel similar to Grant's, began with her characters just as they graduated. But Grant gladly takes on the challenge of evoking the roll-ups, instant coffee, chocolate digestives and all-night discussions between severely dirty people. There are Trots, there are feminists, romantics, there are those who learn stuff, and some who don't survive the freedom in which they've suddenly found themselves. Those new universities - an experiment at the time - and education itself are characters in the novel. Grant has put much wistful thought into this and it's arresting: where exactly did the belief in a liberal education go?
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Adele follows her women and some of their men through the next half century. There's a Big Secret behind part of the story, although like a lot of Big Secrets it doesn't seem as interesting when finally out, as the artistry that got you there. Despite the undergraduate lugubriousness, this is an engaging, lively story, nimble in its devices, with a lot of wit (and you could wish for more). Adele finds herself in a house filled with psychedelic mandala paintings: "I knew we were in for an evening of the higher drivel." When one of the friends has a medical crisis a lecturer is phoned in the middle of the night. "Weeping has its place, of course," he says, "but I think of Lawrence at these moments, dying of tuberculosis at the Villa Robermond, so much yet to —" Adele hangs up on him with true slapstick timing.
Adele tells us that she "came alive" when she went to live in New York, though we're denied that experience. It would be great to have another volume with more of Adele's story - she's a narrator in a thousand. But the decades of these lives, their feel and even smells are deftly done, the array of characters acute. There's an amusing portrait of what Eric Hoffer called the "true believer", a girl called Gillian, who arrives at university a violist, a music fanatic. She then abandons music forever to be a communist, and stays one even when those who recruited her have abandoned those social ideals for corporatism and upward mobility. When Adele visits Gillian a decade or so later, she's an evangelical Christian, and toward the end of the story she's a zealous crusader for Esperanto. In one of the many virtuosities of this novel, Grant tells this woman's story merely by glancing at her bookshelves.
Any novel taking place in England from the 1960s onward has to convey a lot of aesthetic hideousness. Think of that era in which green, brown and orange were thought to be beautiful together. Or just brown. Hard to forge a story out of these things, perhaps, although the lame look of Britain in the latter 20th century must have contributed a lot to the national spirit: that is, depression. Linda Grant gets this precisely in the way she tells the story of Upstairs At The Party. A sharp observer of cultural detail, she puts the last 30 or 40 years through her own wonderful mangle and produces a story of sexual, social and political aspiration (and disappointment) that is fascinating. When you go to buy it in a book shop, don't be scared by the cover and endpaper design - I'm hoping that's part of her method.