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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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6794414,070 (3.73)207
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 44 (next | show all)
This is a very enjoyable contemporary novel. I loved it. It shows how one incident can be the catalyst for change in many lives. ( )
  HelenBaker | Sep 2, 2016 |
Look at the diverse opinions of the reviewers - lots of people I know and trust, who write helpful reviews, both love and loathe this book, and others by Lively. Hmmm...
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
The writing in spots captured sentiments that I could not have expressed better but overall the story did not peek my interest enough to finish. ( )
  anglophile65 | Mar 8, 2016 |
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 He's very out-of-date with his style of dress, mannerisms, and general attitudes.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 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (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 editionscalculated
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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Disambiguation notice
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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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