Author Penelope Lively Wonders ‘How It All Began’

Lee Polevoi


How It All Began

Penelope Lively


229 pages


The mugging of an elderly woman on a London street sets things in motion in Penelope Lively’s 22nd novel, How It All Began. This expertly rendered opening scene (“The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek”) lays the foundation for rippling events that directly affect nine different individuals.


When Charlotte Rainsford is hospitalized for injuries sustained from the mugging, the abrupt change in circumstances intrudes upon the lives of, among others, her daughter Rose and Rose’s employer, the distinguished, if rather clueless, historian Lord Henry Peters, his niece Marion and her lover Jeremy—whose secret affair is uncovered as a direct consequence of the street crime at the start of the novel. It’s an intriguing premise, explicated in Henry’s typically orotund manner:


“There is an analogy, I understand, with a process that interests the physicists—chaos theory. The proposition that apparently random phenomena have an underlying order—a very small perturbation can make things happen differently from the way they would have happened if the small disturbance had not been there. A butterfly in the Amazon forest flaps its wings and provokes a tornado in Texas.”  Henry inclined his head and smiled. “A rather nice image, don’t you think?”


Lively is the author of the 1987 Booker Prize-winning novel, Moon Tiger, about Claudia Hampton, another distinguished historian, who while lying near death in a hospital bed recalls a life that in many ways mirrors the convulsive 20th century. Moon Tiger is an extraordinary work, in both its mastery of the use of past and present narratives and its tragic, deeply affecting love story. It sets a very high standard for Lively’s other works, one which How It All Began approaches but never overtakes.


Much of the opening section of her new novel entails a lot more telling than showing. Each character is described at length, both in their relationship to each other, and in the circumstances most directly influencing their daily lives. For several characters, Marion and Jeremy particularly, fiscal issues are most dominant. There is a lot of worrying about money, which will either resonate with readers similarly afflicted or prove so frustratingly similar to our own concerns as to negate the sense of being outside ourselves in a work of fiction. Nonetheless, Lively deftly conveys a deep sense of each person, seasoned by a wry omniscience that sees us all as agents of folly.


For a fairly lengthy middle part of the novel, a distracting stasis sets in. Jeremy’s wife, Stella, is devastated by the discovery of his adulterous affair and he spends a rather implausible amount of time and energy attempting to win her back (while striving to hold onto Marion as well). Recuperating from her injuries in her daughter’s home, Charlotte teaches English to an East European migrant named Anton, for whom Rose gradually develops strong feelings. Lord Peters attempts to revive his moribund career with an ill-advised foray into documentary television. In Lively’s gentle recounting, it feels like things take a long time to get moving and nothing truly earth-shaking happens.


In any tale of linked lives, some are inevitably more interesting than others. Lively’s female characters are more grounded than their male counterparts, who seem hopelessly deluded in their pursuits. The growing love between Rose and Anton is among the novel’s most moving stories, even if the outcome can be anticipated well in advance. Weekend after weekend, these two very different souls meet for walks in London parks and intimate talks over coffee at Starbucks, but due to circumstances, their feelings can never be realized:


“Beyond them, around them, the Heath went about its business: a dog barked, children called out, somewhere in the distance grass was being cut. Theirs was a moment suspended in time—private, isolated. After a while, he took her arm and they walked away from the tree, back down the path, back among couples, groups, a jogger, a child with a kite, back with the world. They talked, and did not talk. He told her more of the firm with whom he had an interview. She told him Lucy would soon be home from college. They talked of anything that did not matter, and walked on, and on, as the summer afternoon faded around them, dipping toward evening, the shadows became long, and time carried them with it, back into their own lives, away and apart.”


How It All Began is a nimble, elegantly-written novel that explores with gentle humor how events cause lives to collide and fall away. In Penelope Lively’s work, consequences always matter.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.

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