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The Clothes On Their Backs

3.29  ·  Rating Details ·  1,920 Ratings  ·  297 Reviews
Orange Prize winner and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008, Linda Grant has created an enchanting portrait of a woman who, having endured unbearable loss, finds solace in the family secrets her estranged uncle reveals. In vivid and supple prose, Grant subtly constructs a powerful story of family, love, and the hold the past has on the present.

Vivien Kovacs, a sens
Hardcover, 293 pages
Published by Virago Press (UK) (first published October 2nd 2008)
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The White Tiger by Aravind AdigaThe Secret Scripture by Sebastian BarryA Fraction of the Whole by Steve ToltzThe Clothes On Their Backs by Linda GrantSea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Man Booker 2008 - Longlist
4th out of 13 books — 19 voters
Night by Elie WieselThe Heritage by Jack MichonikMila 18 by Leon UrisThe Red Tent by Anita DiamantThe Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
Jewish Fiction And Literature
29th out of 392 books — 49 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Diane Barnes
Jul 23, 2016 Diane Barnes rated it it was amazing
"If you try, if you have a profound willingness to let yourself go completely you can enter the mind of another person. It takes a certain habit of thought, honed by many years of reading in the way I read, that immersion in books, so that they are not so much inside your head; rather, as if they are a dream, you are inside them."

That is how I felt reading this book. I entered the mind of not just the narrator, Vivian, but of all the characters. Ervin and Berta, her parents, who escaped from Hun
Sep 20, 2013 Pascale rated it did not like it
Vivien, the protagonist in this unfocused and bland novel, reminisces on her youth and her attempts at understanding her uncle, a famous slumlord in London, through his narrative of his upbringing in pre-WWII Hungary. Well, if at least Vivien was an interesting character, the reader may want to know more about her as she discovers her family’s background. Alas, Vivien is as bland as the story she tells. Her parents are two-dimensional caricatures of timid Jewish refugees, and the reader suspects ...more
Sara Soares ♡
No início estava envolvida na história, e até dei um longo avanço na leitura,mas, após alguns capítulos, comecei a perder o interesse. Suscitava-me grande curiosidade na parte em que o Tio de Vivien começou a contar as poucas coisas que sabia e viveu durante a Segunda Guerra Mundial, essa parte era interessante, mas depois desliguei completamente. Li o livro até ao fim para saber como terminava, mas é um livro chato e aborrecido, sem uma história por si só, contando algo interessante e ...more
Louise Silk
Feb 09, 2011 Louise Silk rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
This is my kind of book- a well-written novel from a woman's point of view that has layers and layers of meaning. The story is captivating and the characters fully realized and multidimensional without being overly conscious.

The joys to be had in dressing and costuming in all of the ways that clothes express who we are or who we wish we could be ties all of the parts of the book into a great package.

The main character, Vivien, is endearing through as she searches for her family history by talki
Nov 10, 2008 Leah rated it really liked it
Recommended to Leah by: Graham
This book was a birthday present, and it's not a mystery why it was chosen for me. The story contains, among other things: slumlords, Jews, immigrants to the UK, the UK, and (as the name suggests) clothes. The giver probably over-estimates my interest in clothing and the acquisition of clothing, as many men do of many women, but it's a forgivable mistake.

My own interest in clothing is one of necessity, although not in the strictest sense of needing it to survive. I don't love clothing for its ow
May 14, 2011 Jessica rated it really liked it
I thought this book was great. I don't understand some of the 2 star ratings and people who said it was boring. It is a coming of age story, a story of discovering your roots, and a story of coming to terms with who you are and where you come from. Clothing does play an important role, as the title suggests, but in a way that paints important pictures of the main characters - Vivian Kovaks and her uncle Sandor. Clothing is very important to each character but for entirely different reasons. For ...more
Doug H
Aug 09, 2016 Doug H rated it really liked it
Deceptively quiet. A deep exploration of personal family secrets on one level. An even deeper meditation on Fascism and the universal immigrant experience on another level. Very well done.
Aug 17, 2008 Stewart rated it liked it
Linda Grant comes to this year’s Booker longlist following on from her longlisting for this year’s Orange Prize, an accolade she won in 2000 with her second novel, When I Lived In Modern Times. Her third novel, Still Here, flirted with the Booker back in 2002, but never made it to the shortlist. The Clothes On Their Backs (2008), her fourth novel, might yet see her take one step further to the Booker, especially in a year where, judging by the discussions on the Booker site, the field seems ...more
May 03, 2009 Evelyn rated it it was ok
What a disappointment! This book was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize so I figured it was a good bet. Instead, the story was really, really predictable. This is just another coming of age, child of holocaust survivors story, the wrinkle here being the immigrant parents don't tell their daughter about their past at all, and she discovers their history through a rogue uncle she meets when she's a young adult. The plot telegraphed all it's 'surprises' from the get-go. Some of the writing was ...more
Raquel Bernardes
Foi um livro que julguei pela capa (vendo tudo muito arrumadinho estão a ver?) que seria algo divertido, mas que bruta desilusão que apanhei. Fala da Vivien e que vive com os pais, que são um casal de regufiados, mas num dia aparece em casa um Tio que ela não conhecia, e mostra-lhe um outro mundo que ela desconhecia. Esperava mais deste livro, por isso fiquei desiludida com o raio do livro.
Feb 09, 2009 Leah rated it it was ok
BORING! i was very disappointed in this book. i expected so much for. i found it long, vague, going nowhere.
Dec 20, 2008 Gerund rated it liked it
Shelves: immigrant-lit
YES, as the title suggests, this book talks a lot about clothes – silk gowns and vintage cocktail dresses, leather jackets and red snakeskin shoes, rags to riches.
But this is not your usual novel about fashion, written by a disgruntled magazine editorial assistant and studded with designer names. Orange Prize-wining British author Linda Grant takes the familiar phrase used to describe so many immigrants – “they came to this country with only the clothes on their backs” – and turns it into a medi
Jan 08, 2009 Wendy rated it liked it
Generally, I don't like when a book is simply about a theme - for instance, a review that starts out - this book is about racism, or classicism, or whatever ism. For the most part, I like a story that comments on a theme, makes you think - and with that said, I was immediately skeptical of a book that has such a hit you in the head metaphor as its title, as well as its running theme. Luckily, this book is about a story, not about a big "ISM", and while the metaphor is perhaps to simplistic for ...more
Dec 28, 2008 Felicity rated it really liked it
How could anyone not like a book in which the author has one of her characters state the following about George W. Bush (whom he fervently admired)?

"Not a smart man, but's that what you want--the last thing we need is for the intellectuals to gain power; I tell you, some ideas are so ridiculous only a professor could swallow them." (15)

Contrary to what you might expect, the novel is actually set in 1970s London against the backdrop of the rise of the National Front. But much of it is also set in
Sep 02, 2009 LindyLouMac rated it really liked it
The narrator of the novel is Vivien Kovacs the only child of Hungarian immigrant parents, Ervin and Berta who keep themselves to themselves and are even secretive about their past with their own daughter. It is a tantalizing portrait of life for this family in 1970’s London, it is only after Vivien is grown up and once again living back at home after a personal disaster that she decides to discover her roots. Using snippets of information she has overheard as a child she discovers her father’s ...more
Josh Ang
Jan 25, 2011 Josh Ang rated it it was ok
Built on a promising premise of showing us how clothes define our selves, this novel was also ambitious in its attempt to capture the history of a slum landlord in London through the eyes of his estranged niece.

Interspersed with thread narratives about slavery, the plight of East European refugees, discrimination and family ties, it also tries to deal with a displaced youth's sense of belonging and relations with her timid parents who are afraid to live life (in her opinion).

But perhaps it is
Sep 17, 2009 ShareStories rated it it was ok
The Clothes on Their Backs, by Linda Grant is a story of a first generation American woman's search for her family's past, something her parents have deliberately kept from her. Isolated in their British flat, her parents keep a kind of old-world mixed with fear outlook on life.

Growing up in the 60's and 70's of such parents, the narrator naturally begins to explore her world in a way that horrifies her parents, even if much of it is kept secret from them.

She gravitates towards her much disapp
Jun 02, 2012 Brooke rated it did not like it
I don't like writing negative reviews. This time I have to.

From the opening page I had issues with the style and the stilted dialogue. I decided to give it a chance but at page 106 and only 39% read, I have declared defeat.

The main character, Vivian, is underdeveloped and unlikable. Her parents are unrealistic shadows of people. Her first husband dies from an accident that evokes no feelings of sympathy. Vivian then goes in search of her mysterious uncle who is banned from her parents flat and h
Feb 19, 2014 Suzanne rated it really liked it
Two Jewish brothers, one who escaped Hungary, on the verge of WWII, the other who stayed and suffered thru a work camp, are seen in the 70's thru the eyes of a daughter/niece. One, a reclusive workaholic, has never even told his daughter they were Jewish, and the other, a flamboyant , gangster/slumlord is anxious to tell his story to his long unknown niece. The theme of clothing is ever present; Do the clothes make the man? Is the outward appearance of a person, or a life, a factor in who one ...more
Maura Sostack
Feb 03, 2014 Maura Sostack rated it did not like it
Recommended to Maura by: GJC Book Club
There are times when one picks up a book, begins to read, and thinks, "I just can't seem to dig into this one." Sometimes, the effort pays off. I remember this feeling when I started to read "Stones from the River" - difficult to get into, but I stuck with it, and it is one of my all-time favorites books. Unfortunately, "The Clothes on their Backs" is not such a story. I stuck with it, and frankly, the characters were flat, two-dimensional. I stuck with this one, but would not recommend.
Aug 27, 2012 Lynn rated it really liked it
Was just about to add this to my To Read list when I realised I've already read it some years ago. From what I remember, it was an excellent well written book about families, secrets and how people have to deal with all that goes with it. Recommended...
Jun 13, 2011 Leah rated it did not like it
thought i was going to love this - but it really didn't work for me. the characters seemed un-believable and the story dragged. surprised it almost won the booker!
Jan 09, 2009 Marjorie rated it did not like it
Avoid at all costs. I cannot believe the Man Booker would shortlist this. And they really need to redeem themselves since snubbing _Arthur and George_ for the win two years ago.
Julie Mccann
Aug 10, 2012 Julie Mccann rated it it was amazing
One of the most powerful books I have read.
Nov 08, 2016 Kathy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
By the end of the book I was thinking "So what exactly is the author trying to say?" Was this about family dynamics? Was it about the immigrant experience? Was it about immaturity? Was it about life choices? I'm still not sure. What I can say is that the only character I truly liked was Sandor.
Simon Mcleish
Mar 12, 2013 Simon Mcleish rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Originally published on my blog here in September 2009.

The 2008 Booker Prize short list has once again proved dull, to the point that this, the fourth I have started, is the only one I have so far bothered to finish. As well as being an enjoyable book from the short list, it also falls into another small category, Booker-short-listed-novel-not-tapping-into-British-post-colonial-guilt. True, it does have immigrants as characters, but they're wartime Hungarian refugees, not from the former Empire
Apr 27, 2013 M M rated it did not like it
Before I read Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs, I had encountered feuds in few places. Shakespeare and Mark Twain, obviously. In real life, though, a friend once refused to partake of a particular brand of ice-cream. He would not, he said, because it was owned by his uncle.

The story of why his family was so unremittingly hostile to his uncle is irrelevant here, but there are similarities to the case of the Kovaks brothers of Grant's book. Both sets of brothers were immigrants to a 'prom
Jacquelynn Luben
Jul 04, 2013 Jacquelynn Luben rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 19, 2011 Felice rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In The Clothes On Their Backs an impulsive decision to revisit a former place of employment before it goes out of business affords Vivien Kovaks the chance to examine a time in her youth that set the stage for the rest of her life. As the daughter of immigrants in some ways Vivien's life has been a series of closings. Her parents, Ervin and Berta, came to England from Hungary in 1938. Upon arriving one of the things they closed the door on was their Jewishness. They showed their gratitude to ...more
Oct 04, 2016 Tilda rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
I had to abort mission on this book quick smart. Full of overblown metaphors and implausible dialogue that had me eye-rolling at every page turn. But the true insult came when I came across what was meant to be Hungarian dialogue (I'm a native speaker) but was in fact made up gibberish. Like, Linda Grant meet google translate. It's not that hard. Don't waste your time, people.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads' database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Linda Grant was born in Liverpool on 15 February 1951, the child of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. She was educated at the Belvedere School (GDST), read English at the University of York, completed an M.A. in English at MacMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario and di
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