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How It All Began

by Penelope Lively

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8785919,158 (3.74)240
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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» See also 240 mentions

English (58)  Italian (1)  All languages (59)
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
66/2020 I wasn't expecting this novel, a tragicomedy of manners, to be so witty and satirical. Penelope Lively's writing is well formed and I didn't notice until I began this review that the whole story is in the often disparaged present tense omniscient. Observations of each character are telling. The skilfully constructed plot revolves around Charlotte who is mugged, apparently by the butterfly effect, and whose subsequences have consequences rippling out through her social support systems, both give and take, to effect other people who have never and will never meet her.

Reading notes

Eminent but ageing historian Henry knows about the history of UK politics but can't relate this to the democratic society in which he lives and where, we're supposed to believe, ordinary voters (on pg 33 literally the man on the omnibus) determine the course of politics. Henry only knows his history through Great White English Men and has no understanding of contemporary English society shaped by the two-way influences of Empire / Commonwealth, and European Communities / European Union because that history is deemed irrelevant by the ruling classes of which Henry is a product. Henry feels "disorientated" because he can't effectively "judge" the social status of his fellow bus passengers or put them in their place in relation to his perceptions of himself. He is contrasted with Charlotte who, in spite of the infirmities of ageing, continues to immerse herself in her surrounding society, which is to her own and other people's benefit.

Eternally relevant: "History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion."

Charlotte: "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."

Identity is made of memories, both our own and other people's: "What we add up to, in the end, is a handful of images, apparently unrelated and unselected. Chaos, you would think, except that it is the chaos that makes each of us a person. Identity, it is called in professional speak." ( )
  spiralsheep | Jul 2, 2020 |
Charlotte is mugged and this sets off a chain of events in which she and her injury are the catalyst involving incidents of people whose lives are affected by this. She does not know most of them. We meet a cast of quirky characters: Rose, her daughter, and husband, with whom Charlotte stays to recuperate until she is ambulatory again; Sir Henry, the academic anxious to hold on to his earlier reputation as a scholar of note--18th century--and Rose's boss; his niece, Marian, the interior decorator, Anton, the Eastern European immigrant who Charlotte tutors at Rose's home in English using childrens' books; Stella and Jeremy Dalton, in the process of divorcing, and others. The book points up the role of chance, serendipity, and consequences, in people's lives. A quick read, with snappy dialogue and incisive psychological portraits. There are notes of gentle humor. Delightful and highly recommended. ( )
  janerawoof | Jul 13, 2019 |
I thoroughly enjoyed this but I'm happy that I don't have to write a review for myself to see why I liked this---later--because earlier reviews have done such a good job!!! ( )
  nyiper | Oct 12, 2018 |
Another charming and erudite novel from Penelope Lively, whose books are always a pleasure to read.

This one was conceived as an illustration of the butterfly effect. Charlotte, an old widow, is mugged and falls, breaking her hip. This sets in chain a series of events that demonstrate the interconnected nature of modern lives and the way lives are derailed by random events.

This feels like a companion piece to her book Making it Up, in which she imagined alternative versions of her own life that might have followed different choices or events at key moments. Another of her novels is called Consequences so she is clearly interested in causality.

As so often in Lively's writing, the best things are the small details - it is full of wisdom, humour and perceptive observation, if a little lacking in drama. ( )
  bodachliath | Sep 14, 2018 |
A surprisingly quick read about how one event can affect the lives of many people, even if many of them never meet. I suppose it's a sort of "Butterfly Effect" as a book, and I found it quite enjoyable. The book introduces a cast of characters, starting with Charlotte, the woman who is mugged and must go live with her daughter and son in law temporarily, setting off a chain of events that will affect the lives of several people.

These people include a married couple, the woman who is having an affair with the husband, the uncle of the woman, and the uncle's assistant, who happens to be Charlotte's daughter. Also in the mix is a student of Charlotte's, who is she teaching how to read English. Their lives change, some for the better, some for the worse. Some are more sympathetic (Charlotte) than others (the husband, Jeremy is shallow and I kinda wished he had a different ending).

While not life-changing or a classic, I thought overall it was a good read. The book takes on various perspectives of different point in each chapter without being too abrupt or cliff-hanger-ee. I recently read 'The Yoga Studio' which tries to do the "changing POVs" but definitely not as well and lacked from character development. The author Lively did a pretty good job in establishing each of the characters here, whether they were the "main" ones or more of the supporting ones like Charlotte's son-in-law or the new assistant the uncle hires.

I suppose the book is a little too "wrapped up"--as I got towards the end I thought there might be some plot threads that might be left open, but instead the author tells us the eventual futures (long and short-term) of the characters. The reader even finds out the fate of the cat of Charlotte's daughter and son-in-law. However, overall I was fond of the book and of Charlotte. Although not the "main" character, she is a bookworm and that definitely scored points with me.

I was lucky to catch this as a bargain, but I think I wouldn't have minded picking it up at the airport for a plane ride at full price. It won't change your life, but it was a pleasant read for a few hours. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Feb 11, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (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 editionscalculated
Bentinck, AnnaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kellgren, KatherineNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
The Butterfly Effect was the reason. For small pieces of weather — and to a global forecaster small can mean thunderstorms and blizzards — any prediction deteriorates rapidly. Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features, from dust devils and squalls up to continent-size eddies that only satellites can see. — James Gleick, Chaos, 1998
Dedication
To Rachel and Izzy
First words
The pavement rises up and hits her.
Quotations
History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant, but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion.
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.
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 [....] You can use a computer, just about, and cope with a mobile, but with such slow deliberation that the watching young are wincing.
What we add up to, in the end, is a handful of images, apparently unrelated and unselected. Chaos, you would think, except that it is the chaos that makes each of us a person. Identity, it is called in professional speak.
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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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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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Penguin Australia

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