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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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5993816,356 (3.74)175
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 38 (next | show all)
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 |
Growing up, my friends and I used to muse on how everyday events influence the course of our lives. It was mostly silly: “If I hadn’t come outside this afternoon, I wouldn’t have seen you, and we wouldn’t have gone swimming, and my whole life would be different.” In How it all Began, Penelope Lively takes a more serious look at the ripple effect of one life event: the mugging of Charlotte Rainsford. The injuries sustained in the assault force Charlotte to move in with her daughter, Rose, during her recovery. Rose is unable to go on a business trip with her boss Henry, so he asks his niece Marion to accompany him. The business trip changes Marion’s life both personally and professionally. Charlotte’s quest for fulfilment during her convalescence has an unexpected impact on Rose. And so on.

I loved both the plot device and the character development in this novel. I was fascinated by the far-reaching impact of Charlotte’s situation, reaching people completely unknown to her (e.g., Marion, her married lover Jeremy, and Jeremy’s family). Naturally some characters were more likeable and sympathetic than others, but all were complex, fully-developed human beings. Most were confronted with moral dilemmas, causing me to ponder how I would respond in a similar situation. Rose’s story struck the strongest emotional chord, perhaps because we are about the same age, and I am equally prone to taking stock of my first half-century and looking ahead to the rest of my life.

This is my second Penelope Lively novel, and has made me a true fan. I will be reading more of her work. ( )
4 vote lauralkeet | Jan 18, 2015 |
The butterfly effect is a metaphor used in the study of chaos theory to explain how a small action in a remote part of a system can have large effects far from the source. That’s the phenomena that Penelope Lively examines to great delight in How It All Began.

An elderly woman is mugged. She falls, breaks her hip, is forced to move in with her daughter and son-in-law while she recovers. And that particular flap of the butterfly’s wings leads into consequences in a multitude of lives, near and far.

Lively has taken a common premise — the effect of chance in all of our lives — and deftly turned out a uniquely charming and thoughtful novel. Charlotte is that elderly crime victim, a widowed retired schoolteacher. Rose is her dutiful and loving daughter, who brings her mother into her home completely unaware of the emotional havoc that will be wrought. Charlotte herself remains oblivious to much of the havoc that will result, even in the lives of people neither Rose nor Charlotte have ever met. Marriages are destroyed and saved, romances go sour and blossom, careers are ended and begun, and all because a juvenile delinquent decided to assault a total stranger.

Lively’s writing lives up to her name. On the surface it is lighthearted, breezy, casual, but I found myself stopping again and again to mark passages that managed to capture truths that felt universal:

Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. 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.

Charlotte, left alone for great swaths of the day, has plenty of time to think about her current circumstances:

You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life’s outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time, whether you want them or not — life has been lived but it is all still going on, in the mind, for better and for worse. But don’t imagine that anyone else wants to know about it; this narrative is personal, and mind you remember that.

Her injury brings her face-to-face with the reality of having lived seventy-seven years:

You slide, in old age, into a state of perpetual diffidence, of unspoken apology. You walk more slowly than normal people, you are obliged to say “what?” too often, others have to give up their seat on the bus to you, on train journeys you must ask for help with your absurdly small and light case. There is a void somewhere in your head into which tip the most familiar names. … When you were young yourself you were appropriately nice to old people, gave up your seat and so forth, but you never really thought about them. They were another species, their experience was unimaginable, and in any case it was irrelevant; you were not going there, or at least not for so long that there was no need to consider it.

Balancing a light tone with some heavy philosophical musings isn't easy, but Lively manages to walk the tightrope without a wobble. I read this book as part of the British Author Challenge in the 75 Book Challenge group, where Lively was one of two authors featured in January. How It All Began was a splendid introduction to the work of this venerable British writer. ( )
3 vote rosalita | Jan 3, 2015 |
"But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course."

When Charlotte is mugged in the street one day and breaks her hip, a chain of events is set off for a much wider group of people. Her daughter Rose has to cancel a day's work. Rose's boss Henry goes to Manchester to give a lecture without his notes. Henry's niece Marion cancels a date and thus reveals the affair to her lover's wife. All because a delinquent wanted Charlotte's cash.

Lively writes a good book. I loved Moon Tiger, quite enjoyed Heatwave (which I don't seem to have reviewed); were I to sit down and consume her entire oeuvre, I'm confident I would enjoy it. She strikes the balance between clever writing, interesting characters, and just enough plot progression to keep things going. The plot only really exists to make the characters do things, and in fact the plot movements are only really as the result of a passage of time rather than the result of actions or events.

The cast of characters is appropriately limited so that we feel we know each of them well, without getting them mixed up with each other. It is clever to have multiple perspectives but linked characters so that the transitions from one narrator to another are not as jarring or frustrating as such transitions often are.

It's not a demanding book to read - and this is a huge part of why I like authors like Mitchell, Patchett, Lively; you notice the quality of the writing only when there is a showy sentence. Apart from the odd "look at me, I'm good with words" sentence (like the one below), the text is not too dense, but concise and clever. It's only 230 pages long, and I would happily have read another 100 pages, but on the other hand, it felt complete without being overcooked.

"That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend - without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could share it anyway."

Something I noticed in How It All Began and hadn't noticed in her other works was the occasional breaking of the fourth wall - every now and again (and pleasingly infrequently) the narrative moves from the consciousness of one of the characters out to an omniscient third party style narrator who is very conscious of the reader. The quote I selected above is just one such example. I couldn't decide whether these added to or detracted from the book; they broke up the flow in a slightly irritating way, but the writing is so good and these little bits are sufficiently valuable to the book, that I didn't really mind.

If you've enjoyed anything else by Lively, you'll like this. ( )
  readingwithtea | Oct 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (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.
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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