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How It All Began: A Novel Hardcover – January 5, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 203 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The ruling vision of master British novelist Lively’s latest delectably tart and agile novel 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 as he attempts to launch a BBC documentary to hilarious effect. With Rose out helping her mother, Henry prevails upon his daughter, 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, who deals in architectural salvage (tangible history), to postpone a rendezvous, his wife intercepts the message. Charlotte begins tutoring Anton, a smart and soulful East European, who affirms her ardor for language and story and awakens Rose out of her smothering stoicism. Throughout this brilliantly choreographed and surreptitiously poignant chain-reaction comedy of chance and change, Lively (Family Album, 2009) 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. --Donna Seaman


“An elegant, witty work of fiction, deceptively simple, emotionally and intellectually penetrating, the kind of novel that brings a plot to satisfying closure but whose questions linger long afterward in the reader’s mind.”
The New York Times Book Review

“The plot of Penelope Lively’s vital new novel is one big snowball. . . . Writing with her usual poise and cutting cinematically from one character’s story to another’s, Ms. Lively elegantly orchestrates these events while using them as a setup for another series of developments.” — Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Moving skillfully between streams-of-consciousness and a wry omniscient voice, Lively investigates her characters’ motives and afterthoughts with precision and tenderness.” — The New Yorker

“With grace, wit and wisdom, Man Booker Prize winner Lively has crafted a highly readable tale about fates intersecting amid the chaos of modern life.” — People

“Lives intersect in unexpected and comical ways in this breezy, engrossing novel.” — Entertainment Weekly

“With How It All Began, Lively has provided a golden passport that will sweep you through the border control of other people’s lives.” — The Washington Post

“Marvelous . . . a spellbinding surprise . . . Every small twist in the road in this superbly well-plotted novel sheds ever-widening concentric rings of consequences.” — The Chicago Tribune

“Another virtuoso performance . . . Lively continues to surprise and illuminate, writing to ever more dazzling effect.” — The Boston Globe

“Lively is a consummate storyteller. . . . The characters in this novel are, each and all, well drawn and fully conceived. . . . Everyone in this elegantly told tale is connected by chance and the power of story.”

The Seattle Times

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (January 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670023442
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670023448
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (203 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,058,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition
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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