How It All Began: A Novel
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69 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2012
It happens that I am about to turn 78, the same age as Charlotte, one of the protagonists in this splendid novel; the author is close to our ages. She writes with great understanding of such age issues as independence, mobility and memory, but more important, she has written a narrative that's alive on every page, touching the problems of every adult character. No violence, no hidden agendas, no one out to "get" another character, but rather this is a novel of inner thoughts and feelings that holds the reader in its spell. I found the writing compelling and beautiful. Six stars, please.
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55 of 62 people found the following review helpful
Penelope Lively has given us a novel that illustrates how one misdeed can affect many people. She does so, of course, in her own indomitable style.

The author tells us that the plot is inspired by The Chaos Theory:

'Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.' Wikipedia

Charlotte, a woman of indeterminate age, but probably in her seventies, is mugged. She is thrown to the ground, breaking her hip, and her money is taken. That one incident has an affect on at least seven more people. While recuperating, Charlotte goes to live with her daughter, Rose, and Rose's husband, Gerry. Charlotte finds it difficult to be dependent on others, Rose works as a personal secretary to an elderly Lord, an independent scholar, Lord Henry Peters. He suffers from a fading memory, but his ego has him believing that his words command everyone's attention. Henry's niece, Marion, a bit self centered, is an interior designer. Her work has slowed to almost no work. She has also taken up with a married man, Jeremy. Jeremy is a purveyor of other people's junk, and a man who wants it all. His wife, Stella, is a nervous wreck, and she takes a multitude of medications. They have two daughters, and Stella has a sister, Gill, who would drive anyone to drink. Stella reads a text message one day that changes the course of her life. Back to Charlotte, she is a teacher to immigrants who have difficulty reading English. While she is housebound, she invites one of her students, Anton, who is in his forties, and an accountant, to Rose's home for his tutoring. While he is receiving Charlotte's assistance, he meets Rose and they strike up a friendship. All of these people and several they meet by happenstance have become affected by Charlotte's mugging. We learn a little about them and how their actions affect others. Many questions linger on as time passes, and even though I could guess how their lives might change, the journey was delicious.

This is one of Penelope Lively's best novels, and I have enjoyed all twenty-two of them. She has something to teach us all about our behaviors, and how we lead our lives. We have been at the beginning many times with Penelope Lively. But, this time, she tells us "These stories do not end, but spin away from one another, each on its own course." Does everyone live happily after ever? No, does anyone? Each individual leads the life they were meant to live, she believes. Sometimes we are happy, and sometimes we are not. Life goes on, after all.

Highly Recommended. prisrob 01-06-12

Moon Tiger

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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2012
Penelope Lively always has a great concept for her books, often historical, always philosophical. So I find every one of them worth getting. Unfortunately I find that she creates better novels from some of her ideas than from others. This was a book I much looked forward to, and I really like the concept and the start of the book. But about a third of the way in I found myself bored, and so I skipped sections, cheated and read the end. I found myself really disappointed. I thought more would happen to the characters, and one thing would lead to another. But like real life, it became mundane and very ordinary. If you are a Lively fan, do get the book, but I warn you, it's not one of her best.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Once in a while, a work of fiction comes along that is eloquent, satirical, literate, warm, and engaging. Penelope Lively's "How It All Began" is one such novel. The epigraph is about the famous "butterfly effect": One seemingly insignificant event (such as the flapping of a butterfly's wings) can ultimately set off a chain reaction that influences the weather in a distant locale. In Lively's scenario, it all begins in London with the mugging of Charlotte Rainsford by "a fourteen-year-old with behavioral problems." As a result, Charlotte has a broken hip and her daughter, Rose Donovan, insists that it would best for her mother to recuperate at home with Rose and her husband, Gerry. This throws a monkey wrench into Rose's planned excursion to Manchester with her boss, a septuagenarian and historian named Lord Henry Peters. While Rose is busy getting her mother settled, Henry enlists his niece, Marion Clark, an interior designer, to fill in; consequences ensue that will affect Marion's life, as well. In fact, it is safe to say that few people emerge unchanged at the end of this tale.

Rarely has an author assembled such an absorbing cast. Henry Peters is "newly retired, brisk and self-important." Although he was once a force to be reckoned with in academia, his opinions are no longer sought after. In his declining years, he is self-absorbed, moody, and resentful of the infirmities of old age, which he considers "an insult" and "a slap in the face." Seventy-six year old Charlotte, who treasures her independence, appreciates Rose's attentiveness and concern. However, Charlotte is restless, sometimes in excruciating pain, and impatient to resume her normal routines. She also dislikes being "on the edge of things now, clinging on to life's outer rim." To pass the time, she brings over one of her literacy students, Anton, an immigrant who is learning to read English so that he can land a much-needed white-collar job. Finally, Marion, who has been involved in a love affair with a married man, finds herself reconsidering the choices that she has made.

Lively is a benign puppet master who empathizes with her characters' frailties and applauds their strengths. She understands the siren call of self-delusion; it may even be a necessary tool for survival. She also appreciates the integrity, selflessness, and practicality of individuals like Rose, Anton, and Charlotte. "How It All Began" is stylish and poignant, with witty dialogue that incorporates a highly skilled use of fragments, stream of consciousness, and clever asides. The seriocomic plot is wonderfully constructed and moves along effortlessly to a realistic and satisfying conclusion. This book is an uncommon treat to be savored--an entertaining and amusing story that captures the essence of what it is to be human.
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46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2012
A perfect novel, rare as hen's teeth these days. Characters one cares about, true understanding of both contemporary and universal time. Life is arbitrary, but life requires action. As a Penelope Lively fan, I think this is her best. Think of that, unlike her characters, age has not stunted her growth. Instead, she has really hit her stride! I find this inspiring, both as a reader and as a person, who is a character in my own life.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 16, 2012
I have never read anything by Penelope Lively before and now I know what a shame that is and what I have been missing. How It All Began is a wonderful novel full of terrific characters and humor and wisdom. I loved how an accident (mugging) becomes an example of the ripple effect--and how true it is, at least for these characters, that chance determines so much of life. Though the book deals with some pretty heavy issues--everything from aging to adultery to the financial crisis/downturn to love--they are handled with a light touch and the humor is simply wonderful.

This a well-written book that has so much to recommend it! What I loved most was the optimism and the hope that shine through. I also loved that the book was not Americanized to the point that it could have been writen by anybody.

How It All Began is a book I want to tell all my friends to read. I think it would be an excellent choice for a book club, as there are many issues in the book to talk about. This was my first Lively book, but it will not be my last. I loved this book--can you tell? I highly recommend it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2012
Yes, she's still got it, even though she's probably now of a similar age and condition to the aching Charlotte. There's the usual obsession about circumstance and the passage of time - but why not? I can't tire of that. Her characters are engaging as ever, and I was soon desperate to follow their stories. But most of all I love her WRITING: witty but sympathetic, elegant but unstuffy. It's nothing short of delicious.

Yes, she's still my absolute No. 1 favourite author, by a mile. Thank you, Mrs Lively, for yet more hours of delight - and for teaching me more about writing, over the years, than any MA course could have done.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Many readers will find 84-year-old Penelope Lively's How It All Began her best novel so far, primarily because the characters and their issues sound so familiar to those of us approaching (or having reached) senior citizenhood. With characters who comment insightfully and often ironically about their lives while dealing with their latest crises, the novel also features graceful prose and sparkling dialogue which give this novel a thematic heft which is rare in current fiction. At the heart of the novel is the observation that one event can provoke ripples that permanently affect the lives of many people not directly related to that event at all.

The novel opens with the impressionistic description of the mugging of Charlotte Rainsford, age seventy-eight, and her recuperation from a broken hip at the home of her daughter and son-in-law. Her daughter Rose's need to stay home with Charlotte as she begins her recovery leads to the arrival of Marion Clark, a divorced career woman, at the home of her uncle, historian Lord Henry Peters. Marion will fill in for Rose, temporarily, as his assistant. Marion, however, is having an affair with Jeremy Dalton, a married man, and when, in the first ten pages, Jeremy's wife Stella discovers a revealing text message from Marion on his phone, all hell breaks loose, drawing in other characters. The disabled Charlotte's decision to continue to teach reading to immigrants one day a week, leads to the arrival of an immigrant from Kosovo, who comes to Rose's house for tutoring, marking another series of changes and complications, while Sir Henry's decision to write a TV series begins yet another set of ripples.

Throughout the novel, Lively has a great deal of literary fun, putting on a brilliant display of the prose styles required by her characters. Sir Henry's language and writing are stuffy, pretentious, and pompous, for example. By contrast the limited grammatical skills of an immigrant are balanced by insightful and honest comments about life and learning in England. Rose's speech is realistic and unimaginative, while Jeremy's wife Stella's exaggerated sense of her own misery gives her speech a hysterical quality. The author's own style is witty, clever, and never seems to take itself seriously, but it is never casual and never takes itself for granted, often resembling a musical composition in its motifs. Changes in the characters' lives are reflected in changes of tempo and rhythm in the prose. Ultimately, all the thematic motifs come together successfully but never really "conclude," continuing to ripple outward in time.

As Charlotte puts herself into the mind of Anton and the other younger characters, she also sees how much she has changed in the decades since she was their age. "You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life's outer rim," she tells herself. "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." As she thinks of who she is and how she got there, she notes that "The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up, year by year, decade by decade...without it you would not be yourself." Delightful in its personal stories and ironic complications, How It All Began will leave thoughtful readers awestruck by Penelope Lively's insightful commentary on the aging process and on the random nature of events which can change our lives. Mary Whipple
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The title refers to the incident at the beginning of the novel, when 77 year old Charlotte Rainsford is felled in the street by a mugger and breaks her hip. This accident triggers off the chain of events in the rest of the book. Charlotte has been afflicted for some years by the aches and pains of advancing years, but has up till now always kept her independence. Now she has for the time being to live with her daughter Rose and her stolid son-in-law. She loves Rose dearly, but is unhappy to lose her independence and to intrude on the life of Rose and her husband. She is a lovable person and reflects insightfully on the process of getting old, and one fancies that her thoughts are those of Penelope Lively herself, who is much the same age. I found them the wisest and most engaging part of the book.

The other old person in the book is far from insightful. He is the crusty 77 year old Lord Henry Peters, who was once a distinguished historian of 18th century England, a Regius Professor, had sat on Royal Commissions and been advisor to a Prime Minister. Rose works for him as his personal assistant. He still represents the now out-of-date Namierite approach to 18th century history (though he is aware, in one of Penelope Lively's delightful phrases, that "the 18th century has moved on, leaving him behind.") He is out of date in many other ways - his manner, the way he speaks and dresses - and he really does not understand the world in which he now lives. While giving a lecture, he suddenly and humiliatingly forgets names. He feels he must find another way to keep his name before the public, and he hits on the idea that he would condescend to present a television programme on the 18th century, not in the busy-busy way that young telly-dons now do it, but rather à la Kenneth Clark, unaware that that approach is now also dated. It's surprising how far, through a contact, he got, and we are given an idea how tedious the actual making a television programme can be. And then Henry is taken for a ride, quite a pleasurable ride for him - and he is so unworldly that he never notices.

I found these two old folk the most interesting characters in the book. The people in the next generation down - a banker, an interior decorator, an antique dealer - go through the usual experiences of affaires, marriage problems, and financial worries. (Lively is bang up-to-date with the current recession.) Well, perhaps no quite so usual: it is rare that divorce proceedings can make for such entertaining reading. The husband in question is quite a character - very well drawn.

Unusual, too, is Anton, a middle-aged economic migrant from Eastern Europe, who was an accountant in his own country, but in England has to work as a labourer on a building site until he has learnt to read English. Charlotte, who had been an English teacher and had been running an adult literacy class, now has one-to-one sessions with Anton in Rose's home and talks to him about the literature (again probably speaking for Penelope Lively). Her daughter Rose also helps him with his English and in other ways. The developments which follow are somewhat predictable, but still charmingly described.

I found the coda very satisfying.

Penelope Lively is a marvellous writer. Her clear prose slips down like a cool glass of champagne. She moves deftly from character to character in this well-plotted story. Her learning, about literature, history, and much else besides, is worn lightly. Above all, she is witty, wise and compassionate.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Knowing of Lively's previous work, I had expected a good book. What I got was an absolute gem, a pleasure to read and savor. Lively pens a great story, but it is the telling which has me spell-bound. This is a tumultuous story, with it's ups and downs, and it's hell-breaking-loose moments, but the author tells it comfortingly, with wit and wisdom and that rare panache of making even the more serious events look amusing. Her characters are sketched with a deep and intimate understanding, and Lively festoons them with their peculiar quirks and eccentricities by and by.

Lively takes her time telling this tale. Events happen, but they don't happen in isolation. We also are privy to the people and the happenings around that event - the lead-in, the aftermath and it's repercussions. This careful construction gives the book depth - it is like being there and knowing these people intimately. Her descriptions give them personality; to me, immersed in this book, they are living-breathing, full-bodied people. The characters in this book are ordinary, everyday people and the tale is of common-place everyday happenings ; people get mugged everyday, hearts are broken, and infidelities bloom anew. But to take these characters and these happenings and tell a tale like this, is rare. "How it all began" is a rare and accomplished novel, by an author well-versed in the language of life.
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