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How It All Began: A Novel Hardcover – January 5, 2012
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*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.”
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Through a richly conceived and colorful cast of characters, Penelope Lively explores the powerful role of chance in people’s lives and deftly illustrates how our paths can be altered irrevocably by someone we will never even meet.
My Thoughts: From the very first page of How It All Began: A Novel, we are caught up in a series of events, beginning with the mugging of Charlotte Rainsford, and rippling forward to people she knows…and then to total strangers.
How we can all be connected by an event was a fascinating exploration. I liked how the author showed us the various characters as they meandered down the pathways that were affected by this one seemingly irrelevant moment in one woman’s life.
There was Rose, Charlotte’s daughter, who takes her in after the mugging and whose life is changed.
Another random connection occurs when Rose’s boss Henry asks his niece Marion to attend a luncheon with him when Rose cannot. A text Marion sends to Jeremy, a married lover, upends his marriage.
Numerous vignettes that spotlight how these several lives are changed kept my interest up, and while the story was not one I loved, I definitely enjoyed it. 4 stars.
It all begins when Charlotte Rainsford - a 76-year-old woman - is accosted by an unknown teenage thief on the streets of London and breaks her hip. That one random event gives way to a slew of other related events: Charlotte must recuperate at the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Rose and Gerry. Bored out of her mind, she takes on an adult student - Anton, a European immigrant who is learning the English language - who fascinates Rose in a way that hasn't happened in years.
And, since Rose must tend to her mother, she cannot go to Manchester with her boss, an ancient historian named Henry, who takes his niece Marion instead. It's during that trip that Marion meets a shyster and, at the same time, is forced to start reconsidering her affair with the very-married Jeremy, whose wife Stella finds out about the affair, and... well, the "chaos theory" goes on and on.
None of this is particularly innovative but it's done so exceedingly well and with such aplomb and good humor that the reader cannot help but be carried along. As the historian Henry notes, "Progress is forever skewed by circumstance - the unforeseen event, an untimely death, the unpredicted circumstance, and the course of history would be one of seamless advance." History and life are, the author suggests, subject to interpretation and random fate.
I cannot help but end this review by quoting Ms. Lively's key character, Charlotte, on her love of 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 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 frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing." I have read How It All Began for many of these same reasons - and I've been rewarded.
1. I believe its central tenet -- everything and everyone is connected and the consequences of our most trivial actions echo across space and time.
2. I care about all the characters -- even Jeremy, the perennial optimist, opportunist, and infant.
3. Charlotte -- a lady of a certain age (mine) -- has to deal with the vicissitudes that come with advancing -- um -- maturity: loss of independence, role reversals; vulnerability.
4. Charlotte volunteers as a tutor in an adult literacy program, as do I.
5.Henry reminds me of some aging academics I know who struggle to remain relevant, when clearly their glory days are in the rearview mirror.
6. Rose and Anton's story -- which could have been so treacley -- instead ends as it should, with an adult recognition of reality. I want to hug them!