How It All Began by Penelope Lively


I experienced a brief moment of sadness when I thought how quicky the season seems to have drifted into autumn here in the northern hemisphere because this book could be recommended as the perfect summer read. However, it is reasonable to think it is someone’s vacation somewhere in the world so I will happily promote How it All Began as the perfect lawn chair companion even if the autumn leaves are falling all around the reader.

I have enjoyed two other novels by Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger and The Photograph. This present novel written in the latter part of her long career demonstrates the masterful story telling skill she has acquired going back at least thirty years. I can approximate the date with confidence because I read Moon Tiger when I was on maternity leave with my second child, (and how I had time to read any literary work at that time is a wonder to me now). This latest book was a purchase of caprice at my local bookstore in a moment of weakness after having promised myself to reduce the stack of books on my night table ( and under the night table and in the linen cupboard and the family room and under the stairs etc.) before purchasing any more. The memory of those two earlier novels influenced my lapse in discipline so I am defiantly unrepentant as this book was worth breaking that promise to myself.

This is a characher driven novel and consistantly so from start to finish, How It All Began, does not have a single unlikeable character. It begins with the elderly Charlotte Rainsford being assaulted and robbed by a faceless mugger. She is a retired teacher, widowed and living on her own in London, teaching an adult literacy course on a voluntary basis. The nature of her injuries is such that she must stay with her daughter and son-law while she recovers. The unfortunate mugging starts a chain of events that touches the lives of almost a dozen or so people who will never know the connection to the original incident. Charlotte’s daughter, Rose, has to take time off from her work as a personal assistant to the self-absorbed Sir Henry resulting in his being ill-prepared for a conference where he makes a series of disasterous and embarrassing mistakes. At the same time, his niece Marion , who has filled in for Rose, sends off a hasty text message that shatters the marriage of her lover… and this is just the beginning of the interconnected events that make up this story. It is as if Dame Lively set all her characters in a circle of imaginary dominos and then enjoyed watching them tumble down in a spray of  lovely spiralling patterns.

My favourite character is the self-important academic, political pundit and once upon a time, advisor to prime ministers, Sir Henry Peters. He has neither an intimate partner in his life nor a child of his own because he is quite in love with himself and has no room for anyone but ‘Sir Henry’ in his emotional repertoir. However, he has reached an age when his beautiful mind is showing signs of decline. His memory fails him pitifully on many occasions. Yet, he is so delightfully and impossibly resilient that in his early seventies he convinces himself he might make a new career as a television personality. Then, somehow through another series of improbable events, he manages to do so! There are other references to the indignity of aging throughout this novel and I had the feeling they connect directly to the experiences of the author herself who is easily in her eighties. Charlotte is portrayed as a woman used to managing her own life but is obliged to obey Rose’s gentle insistence that she take her time convalescing and not rush back to her London apartment. This is the well-documented phenomenon of the child-parent rôle reversal that occurs in one’s senior years. I have experienced something similar with my own parents and I can see my doomed future on the horizon hinted in my children’s lack of faith in my ability to negotiate the apps on my I-pad.

To do justice to this novel I have to mention a few of the other quirky characters such as Jeremy who turned his love of junk into an antique sourcing business although he is really still a junk dealer. And then there is Gerry who is happy to live out life in his hobby shed and Anton the architect from Eastern Europe whose brain refuses to learn English until it is lead back to the primordial roots of the English childhood. There is a shady American con man and an over zealous sister trying to rescue her sibling ,who clearly does not want to be rescued, from a wobbly marriage. These are lovely complications that find all kinds of different resolutions. Even the mugger; the perpetrator, is eventually sorted out.

And now! as I have finished this review I am going to pass this book along to a friend  I think will enjoy How It All Began and at the same time I may reduce the monstor inventory by one.     



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