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How It All Began: A Novel by Penelope Lively
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How It All Began: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Penelope Lively

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6274115,477 (3.73)182
Member:vancouverdeb
Title:How It All Began: A Novel
Authors:Penelope Lively
Info:Viking Adult (2012), Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
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 41 (next | show all)
How It All Began is a book to read for its interesting and subtle moments. It's great for readers who like to identify with the way characters react. It's not a book to read for plot. It has no overall plot, just subplots that are loosely connected, but have little affect on each other once they are going. Some of the stories end, but others don't. Penelope Lively seems to have done this intentionally, because toward the end of the book she says, “An ending is an artificial device...”

Anton and Henry are two intriguing personalities. Anton is an immigrant to England where the story takes place, coming from an unnamed eastern European country. He's a trained accountant, but has problems speaking English, so he's had to settle for manual work. We get to follow his struggles with the language and with his attraction to Rose. Henry is also an absorbing character. He's very out-of-date with his style of dress, mannerisms, and general attitudes. Combine those characteristics with mild dementia and Penelope Lively has created a fascinating personality.

However, it is the women who are the most captivating characters in this novel. Charlotte, Rose, and Marion alone make the book worth reading. Charlotte is Rose's mother as well as the woman whose mugging starts the novel rolling. She is also Anton's English tutor, which is how Rose and he meet. I loved reading Charlotte's reactions when I knew Rose's secret. Marion has her own set of relationship issues with both her business partners and her love interest.

The premise of How It All Began is that a single event can cause a number of changes to occur in the lives of loosely connected people. Most of the subplots hold true to that idea, but one of the major ones, does not. This is the story about the reaction of Henry, an aging historian, to problems he had when delivering a speech on 18th century life. Henry was embarrassed by his performance and decides to compensate for his failure by pursuing a different venue to express his ideas – television. Henry's life had been altered slightly because of the event that was “how it all began,” but the only change was that his niece had attended his lecture instead of his personal assistant. It seems to me his life would have played out the same even if the original event had never occurred.

Another nice aspect to this novel is Lively's tendency to branch off from her story to make interesting observations about aspects of life. Here's a section where Charlotte is thinking about how our perception of time changes as we age:

One persuasive explanation has to do with the changed nature of experience itself; when we are young, novelty abounds. We do, see, feel, taste, smell newly, day after day; this puts a brake on time. It hovers, while we savor each fresh moment. In old age, we've seen it all, to put it bluntly. Been there, done that. So time whisks by. Ah, that's why–those interminable days of childhood.

The thought is absorbing, even though it has very little to do with the rest of the book. Charlotte is also an avid reader, so we also get her opinions of readers such as Henry James. That's fun, too.

In short, this is a good book for readers who like interesting, quotable thoughts and well developed characters, but who don't care if a plot is a bit disconnected.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions ( )
  SteveLindahl | Feb 9, 2016 |
When Charlotte Rainsford, retired literature instructor, is accosted by a petty thief on a London city street, the consequences of her injuries and subsequent rehabilitation ripple through the lives of family, acquaintances, and strangers alike – creating a butterfly effect of which she is largely entirely unaware. Her daughter and son-in-law’s life is thrown out of routine when Rose insists her mother convalesce in their home. Lord Henry, an aging historian and Rose’s employer, is terribly put out that Rose can no longer accompany him on a business trip. His niece, Marion, a creative but financially strapped interior designer, agrees to travel with Henry – and in doing so, makes the acquaintance of an elusive banker, George Harrington. In texting her lover, Jeremy, that she will be out of town, Marion unwittingly causes the Dalton marriage to come an abrupt end. Meanwhile, Charlotte is bored and takes up tutoring a foreign student, Anton, who meets Rose and seeks to take up with her. To my further delight, there are several bibliophiles in this book, Charlotte among them:

“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 is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.” (34-35)

Lively writes beautifully and has created a wildly diverse and interesting cast of characters. Wittingly, she shows us how our lives can be irrevocably altered by circumstances in the life of another whom we have never even met. A keen and wise observer of human nature, a consummate and often humourous storyteller, Lively delights with this wry tale of character and consequence. Highly recommended! ( )
5 vote lit_chick | Jan 12, 2016 |
My first Penelope Lively book and I will definitely read more of hers. Loved the character of Charlotte - could identify with so many of her traits! Enjoyed Lively's insight into human nature and her writing style. Found the sections on Henry slow and drawn out - loved the rest! ( )
  carolfoisset | Dec 12, 2015 |
I went ahead and marked this five stars for "amazing," because it's rare that a contemporary novel is quotable. The main character is an educated British woman in her seventies, recovering from a mugging. First sentence:

The pavement rises up and hits her.

Terrific, right? Here's a bit from when she's ruminating on being in constant pain from the resultant broken hip:

Ah, old age. The twilight years -- that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot -- roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about. We all avert our eyes, and then -- wham! you're in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.

The range of characters and voices Penelope Lively offers reminds me of George Eliot. Not all of the characters are likeable, but all of them are human, even the real rotters. The tender romance that develops between a married woman and an immigrant man who's fluent in several languages but finds himself terrifyingly unable to learn to read in English -- well, I'm never going to forget it and it leaves a quiet ache as deep as if I'd lived at least one of their lives.

The only thing I found utterly unconvincing was the idea that a woman in her 40s is put off by rock music, thinking of it as something that belongs to her children. Hate to break it to Lively, but those of us in our 40s grew up with rock and roll. Now we're trying to get used to odd little offshoots like Nintendocore, which I only heard about last week when my son introduced me to it. ( )
  Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 2015 |
My recent encounter with Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel, led me to a more in depth look at this clever, amusing, and skilled author. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, A member of PEN and the Society of Authors, and a receipt of several titles bestowed by the Queen, including Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was born in Cairo, Egypt, but now lives in London.

Her 2011 novel, How it All Began, tells the story of Charlotte Rainsford, who is mugged in the first sentence. This sets off a chain of consequences, which dramatically affect the lives of several people, some of whom do not even know Charlotte. For example, her daughter Rose must give up a business trip with her employer, Lord Henry, to care for her mother who has been seriously injured. Monica, Henry’s niece, takes the place of the efficient Rose, and promptly forgets the typed text of his speech for a conference. Humiliation ensues. Before Monica leaves, she texts her lover, Jeremy, and his wife reads the message. Monica also meets a banker, named Harrington, and upon discussing her business as an interior designer, he hires her to redo a condo in London. I am not really giving that much away, since all this happens in the first few pages.

Charlotte moves in with Rose and her husband, Gerry. She has been teaching a class of immigrants to read and speak English, and one student presses Charlotte for lessons in her home, as he needs these skills for an upgrade in his employment. She agrees, and he has a peculiar effect on Rose and Gerry. Of course, Charlotte is anxious to get back on her own, and she constantly muses over her difficulties.

Lively writes, “Old age is its own climate, she reflects. Up against the wire, as you are, the proverbial bus is less of a concern: it is heading for you anyway. The assault upon health is inevitable, rather than an unanticipated outrage. You remain solipsistic – we are all of that – but the focus of worry is further from the self. You worry about loved ones – that tiresome term, as bad as closure – you worry about the state of the nation, about sixteen-year-olds sticking knives into one another, about twenty-year-olds who can’t find a job, you worry about the absence of sparrows and the paucity of butterflies, about destruction of habitats, you worry about the decline of the language, about the books that are no longer read, about the people who don’t read” (194).

That sure fits me to a tee! Interspersed are many moments of quiet humor, tenderness, and a dash of treachery. Like many English writers, I always pick up a handful of interesting terms and idioms. Charlotte has an obsession with books and reading. On a visit to her doctor, she notes others in the waiting room, “…few others had a book. People read magazines – their own, or the dog-eared ones supplied by the hospital – or they simply sat, staring at each other, or into space. One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy pink raised lettering on the cover. An elderly man had a battered hardback library book. She wanted to know what it was but could not see – unforgiveable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime” (117).

I never go anywhere without a book, and I always try and sneak a peek at what others are reading. How it All Began by Penelope Lively has convinced me to expand my collection of her works. A most pleasant and enjoyable read. 5 stars.

--Jim, 1/19/15 ( )
  rmckeown | Jan 30, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (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
 

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Penelope Livelyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kellgren, KatherineNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Rachel and Izzy
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The pavement rises up and hits her.
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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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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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