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How It All Began: A Novel by Penelope Lively

How It All Began: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Penelope Lively

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Title:How It All Began: A Novel
Authors:Penelope Lively
Info:Viking Adult (2012), Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, London, British fiction, relationships, contempory British Literature

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How It All Began by Penelope Lively

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Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
As I was reading Penelope Lively’s most recent book, I was struck by its similarity in tone and style and in character development to another writer, one that I spent last year reading on a monthly basis. I’m looking at you Barbara Pym. And since I love Ms. Pym, unabashedly, I am now, officially, head over heels for Ms. Lively.

Her book is based on the idea of the domino effect, the chain reaction or more precisely, the Butterfly Effect, which assumes that a distressing incident can evolve to encompass other unrelated incidents and individuals. In the opening pages, seventy-seven year old Charlotte is knocked to the ground, her purse stolen by a teenage mugger. The ensuing narrative demonstrates, with great humor and compassion, how this one incident goes on to incite one incident after another, and effect the lives of several individuals.

Charlotte’s daughter Rose, is unable to accompany her irascible boss Henry, to a Manchester conference on the weekend because her mother, unable to return to her own home, will need to settle in with her and her husband. Henry therefore, asks his niece Miranda, an interior designer operating during the heights of the recession. She texts her lover to let him know that she will be gone for the weekend but the message is intercepted by his wife, who suspects the worst and initiates divorce proceedings. And Charlotte, now unable to maintain her volunteer tutor position, allows an Eastern European immigrant to come to her daughter’s home to be tutored there which presents other complications. Lively presents the conundrum through prose that lives up to her name and develops these very complex characters in a way that makes the reader cheer for them to overcome the obstacles that present themselves.

Charlotte, it turns out, is one of us: a voracious reader. Literary references are scattered throughout the narrative and Charlotte is finding herself adrift, when she fears her reading has also taken a hit after her mugging:

”Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her---then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.” (Page 34)

Lively brings us along through the effects of happenstance on the lives of the unsuspecting, with great style and adroitness. This is a big, feel good novel delivered in a slight package by an author at the top of her game. Very highly recommended. ( )
10 vote brenzi | Feb 25, 2014 |
I love Penelope Lively. Every time I read her I put look for more that she has written. I just can't get enough. This has a great cast of characters all have their lives transformed by an act of violence whose perpetrator we never meet. A unique idea for a wonderful novel. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
The only mis-step in this elegant novel is a confusion about the actual processes of academic publications (no, it isn't done by way of a proposal to the editor followed up by personal meetings and consultations).
  rmaitzen | Feb 7, 2014 |
deeply moving, simple language ( )
  pepe68 | Jan 28, 2014 |
I really liked this. For me,it was less about the butterfly effect and more about the characters. They were beautifully portrayed, especially Charlotte and Henry. It is the first book I have read by this author, but I would definitely like to read more, which is surely the sign of a good book. ( )
  shirleybell | Sep 26, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
How It All Began begins in uncharacteristically violent fashion: "The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek." Charlotte, a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s, finds that she has been mugged and relieved of her house keys, bank cards and £60 in cash. As a reader, you share her sense of shock and bewilderment – after all, one might expect to be reasonably safe from street crime in a Penelope Lively novel; though the book introduces a number of elements you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find, including East European immigrants, chocolate cream frappuccinos and errant text messages used as a plot device.

It soon becomes apparent that being knocked down has a knock-on effect. Charlotte is forced to move in with her daughter Rose while she recuperates, which means that Rose is unable to accompany her employer, Lord Peters, to receive an honorary doctorate in Manchester. His Lordship's niece, an interior designer named Marion, goes with her uncle instead, though a text explaining her absence is intercepted by the wife of her lover, thus hastening the demise of their marriage. It all unfolds with the inescapable logic of a well-oiled farce, though every so often Lively's authorial voice intrudes to comment on the domino-toppling effect: "Thus have various lives collided, the human version of a motorway shunt, and the rogue white van that slammed on the brakes is miles away, offstage, impervious."

The novel contains some of Lively's funniest and most enjoyable character studies, not least the pompous bubble of self-esteem that is the academic relic Lord Peters; once a leading authority on Walpole, he now worries that "the 18th century has passed him by", and hopes to re-establish his reputation with a David Starkey-style television series. Lively is deliciously intolerant of interior designers – Marion's paramour, who runs a reclamation yard, is painted as little more than an jumped-up junk merchant; while Marion's business is principally based on the resale of "a cargo of interior adornments forever on the move, filtering from one mansion flat or bijou Chelsea terrace house to another".

Yet the most telling relationship is that which develops between the comfortably married Rose and Anton, an economic migrant who comes to visit Charlotte for literacy lessons. Rose surprises herself by developing an affection for this timid man with soulful eyes and fractured English, but sensibly limits the relationship to wistful strolls round London parks and weekend assignations in Starbucks.

Anton, a trained accountant, has had to accept work on a building site while struggling to master the language. Charlotte achieves a breakthrough by throwing away the standard uninspiring teaching materials and presenting him with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. "I am like child," he says, happily. "Child learn because he is interested … Story go always forward – this happen, then this. That is what we want. We want to know how it happen, what comes next. How one thing make happen another."

It can only be a matter of time before Anton graduates from Maurice Sendak to Penelope Lively novels, as she remains a sublime storyteller – the opening sentence has us riveted with curiosity as to what will happen next. Yet she also keeps us consistently aware of the nature of the illusion. "So that was the story," she concludes, "so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story … These stories do not end, but spin away from one another, each on its own course." In other words, they momentarily collide and separate to form the kind of narrative at which Lively excels: the untidy, unpredictable one in which everyone lives ambivalently ever after.
added by VivienneR | editThe Guardian, Alfred Hickling (Nov 18, 2011)
*Starred Review* The ruling vision of master British novelist Lively's latest is the Butterfly Effect, which stipulates that a very small perturbation can radically alter the course of events. The catalyst here is a London mugging that leaves Charlotte, a passionate reader and former English teacher become adult literacy tutor, with a broken hip. She moves in with her married daughter, Rose, to recuperate. Rose works for Henry, a lord and once-prominent historian, whose ego is as robust as ever but whose mind is faltering. With Rose out helping her mother, Henry prevails upon his niece, Marion, an interior designer, to accompany him out of town, where she meets a too-good-to-be-true client. When she texts her lover, to postpone a rendezvous, his wife intercepts the message. Charlotte begins tutoring Anton, who affirms her ardor for language and awakens Rose out of her smothering stoicism. Throughout this brilliantly choreographed and poignant chain-reaction comedy of chance and change, Lively shrewdly elucidates the nature of history, the tunnel-visioning of pain and age, and the abiding illumination of reading, which so profoundly nourishes the mind and spirit.--
added by kthomp25 | editBooklist, Donna Seaman

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Penelope Livelyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kellgren, KatherineNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Rachel and Izzy
First words
The pavement rises up and hits her.
History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant, but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion.
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Book description
When . . .
Charlotte is mugged and breaks her hip, her daughter Rose cannot accompany her employer Lord Peters to Manchester, which means his niece Marion has to go instead, which means she sends a text to her lover which is intercepted by his wife, which is . . . just the beginning in the ensuing chain of life-altering events.
In this engaging, utterly absorbing and brilliantly told novel, Penelope Lively shows us how one random event can cause marriages to fracture and heal themselves, opportunities to appear and disappear, lovers who might never have met to find each other and entire lives to become irrevocably changed.
Funny, humane, touching, sly and sympathetic, How It All Began is a brilliant sleight of hand from an author at the top of her game.
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The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership, and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life.

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