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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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5483618,269 (3.72)153
Title:How It All Began: A Novel
Authors:Penelope Lively
Info:Penguin Books (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 240 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:read 2012, womens fiction, british, humor

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How It All Began by Penelope Lively


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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 |
Nancy Ruhle
  KindredSpirits | Jul 10, 2014 |
(quoted from another Library thing reader): 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. recommended. ( )
  DavidO1103 | Jul 9, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (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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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
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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