HOW IT ALL BEGAN
I can’t say why it has taken me so long to read a Penelope Lively novel. I can say I’m sorry it took so long. Our Northern CA book club which has been hosted by the Clayton Community Library for almost ten years, as a way of saying “thanks,” asked the head librarian, Karen Smith, to suggest a book for a recent read. And How It All Began, the book suggested, is how this book review began.
I find it difficult to explain this story without immediately giving it away. So, I will begin with the cast of characters: 1) Rose Donavon, married to Gerry, daughter of Charlotte, secretary to Lord Henry Peters; 2) Henry Peters, retired academic, Rose’s boss and uncle to Marion; 3) Marion, niece of Henry, interior decorator, and lover of Jeremy; 4) Jeremy, decorator of sorts, married to Stella and lover of Marion; and 5) Charlotte, retired teacher, widow, mother of Rose and reading tutor of Anton, a recent East European immigrant who only wants to find happiness and improve his life. There are a few others, but only on the periphery of the story. The most import character in this novel of family, finance, romance, friendship, disappointment, and reality is the omniscient voice of the author, omniscient enough in real life to bear the title Dame Penelope Lively.
The novel opens with the mugging of an unnamed woman. We witness the mugging, the ambulance taking her away and her arrival at hospital. We still do not know her name, but in the hospital, she wonders about the mugger, male or female. “Women muggers now, no doubt; this is the age of equal opportunities.” The first hint that the woman mugged is Rose’s mother, Charlotte, is on page five and not identified by name until page seven. Charlotte is the key to the story. The butterfly, if you will, of the Butterfly Effect, coined by Edward Lorenz in his Chaos Theory and amplified by Lively in How It All Began.
Books, which we all know by their titles, are characters themselves in this story. Charlotte notes her age by the books she’s read at different years of her life. “She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.”
It is a novel about love, romantic and familial, its possibilities and ultimately its realities. It is also about books, from picture books to novels, and what those books can teach us. I especially appreciated the multiple directions in which the story travels. Lively gives her characters room not only to fail but to struggle and grow. Her characters move through a thoroughly modern English landscape and are a pure reading pleasure. These characters are believable; they are desirable and flawed.
I must be careful not to tell too much because it would be such a spoiler. Love is found and lost and found anew. I’m not entirely sure that being a mature reader didn’t add to my reading pleasure. Lively’s writing is exactly that, lively and immensely satisfying. Not only did I have so much fun reading How It All Began, but I am also firmly committed to reading more of Dame Lively’s work. Because she is one of Britain’s elder writers, we readers are blessed with shelves and shelves of her work. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger; The Ghost of Thomas Kempe; The Road to Lichfield; The Photograph; Oleander, Jacaranda; Passing On; According to Mark; Life in the Garden; The Purple Swamp Hen; Family Album; City of the Mind; Making it Up; A House Unlocked; Ammonites and Leaping Fish, A Life in Time; Cleopatra’s Sister; Treasure of Time; Astercote; Next to Nature, Art; The House in Norham Gardens; Dancing Fish and Ammonites, A Memoir; Perfect Happiness; Beyond the Blue Mountains; The Whispering Knights; Consequences; The Voyage of QV66; Spiderweb: A Novel; The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy; Heat Wave; In Search of a Homeland, the Story of the Aeneid; The Driftaway.