How It All Began: A Novel

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Overview

A vibrant new novel from Penelope Lively-a wry, wise story about the surprising ways lives intersect.

When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances and strangers alike. A marriage unravels after an illicit love affair is revealed through an errant cell phone message; a posh yet financially strapped interior designer meets a business partner who might prove too good to ...

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Overview

A vibrant new novel from Penelope Lively-a wry, wise story about the surprising ways lives intersect.

When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances and strangers alike. A marriage unravels after an illicit love affair is revealed through an errant cell phone message; a posh yet financially strapped interior designer meets a business partner who might prove too good to be true; an old-guard historian tries to recapture his youthful vigor with an ill-conceived idea for a TV miniseries; and a middle-aged central European immigrant learns to speak English and reinvents his life with the assistance of some new friends.

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. Brought to life in her hallmark graceful prose and full of keen insights into human nature, How It All Began is an engaging, contemporary tale that is sure to strike a chord with her legion of loyal fans as well as new readers. A writer of rare wisdom, elegance, and humor, Lively is a consummate storyteller whose gifts are on full display in this masterful work.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Charlotte, who is in her 70s, is mugged, leaving her injured and without her handbag. This delightful, absorbing novel relies on a sophisticated and skillfully realized structure to introduce and then follow its endearingly ordinary characters. Though Charlotte’s incident proves to be the first domino to fall, she herself recedes into the background as her daughter, her middle-aged ESL student, her boss, and her boss’s niece come to the fore, going about the business of their daily lives and loves, all on a somewhat different path than they would have, had not Charlotte broken her hip. The interdependency of the characters’ lives, which they remain largely unaware of, builds intriguing momentum, and the pace quickens as the novel develops. Throughout, prolific Booker Prize–winning author Lively (for Moon Tiger) illustrates her knack for charming familiarity and just the right dash of surprise. (Jan.)
Michiko Kakutani
 
“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.”
People
 
“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.”
The Chicago Tribune
 
“Marvelous . . . a spellbinding surprise . . . Every small twist in the road in this superbly well-plotted novel sheds ever-widening concentric rings of consequences.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“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 Yorker
 
“Moving skillfully between streams-of-consciousness and a wry omniscient voice, Lively investigates her characters’ motives and afterthoughts with precision and tenderness.”
The Boston Globe
 
“Another virtuoso performance . . . Lively continues to surprise and illuminate, writing to ever more dazzling effect.”
The Washington Post
 
“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 Seattle Times
 
“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.”
Entertainment Weekly
 
“Lives intersect in unexpected and comical ways in this breezy, engrossing novel.”
Library Journal
A chance encounter between a retired schoolteacher and a petty thief sets off an unexpected chain of events. A marriage is undone by a misdirected cell phone call revealing an affair, for instance, while an old-timey historian gets an idea for a snappy miniseries. The moral—life always has other plans for us—should be beautifully conveyed by Man Booker Award winner Lively. Especially nice for book groups.
Library Journal
In her latest title, the Booker Prize-winning author of Moon Tiger explores the far-reaching effect of happenstance, as individual circumstances shift, lives change, and the known is perceived in an altogether new light. The novel opens with the mugging of retired schoolteacher Charlotte Rainsford on a London street. Subsequently, a diverse cast of richly embroidered acquaintances and strangers find their lives irrevocably altered by this event, which many of them haven't even heard about. We see how the mugging affects Charlotte's daughter Rose, who works for a historian desperate to return to the limelight, and the spillover to his niece Marion, a cash-poor interior designer hunting for a business partner while carrying on an affair eventually revealed through a stray cell-phone call. Lively delivers her story about these intertwined lives with faultless dexterity, sly humor, keen insight, and deft economy. VERDICT Lively's 12th novel is a feel-good masterpiece that will delight faithful fans as well as those new to the work of this consummate storyteller. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/11.]—Joyce Townsend, Pittsburg, CA
The Boston Globe
 
How It All Began is another virtuoso performance. I found it even more delightful a second time through, appreciating once more the elegance of Lively’s design, the grace notes of thematic underpinning shining through. . . . In her own late 70s now, with a legion of regular readers and newcomers with every book, Lively continues to surprise and illuminate, writing to ever more dazzling effect.”
The Seattle Times
 
“Lively is a consummate storyteller who once again illuminates the ways that the vagaries of chance bring powerful alteration to the ordinary plans of ordinary people. . . . 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.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Lively’s novel is skillfully constructed, with a thoroughly engaging plot. It also has much to say about the role of chance in human affairs, the aging process and the importance of memories.”
The Washington Times
 
“Startling and soothing, uncommonly paced, this is a book to treasure. . . . To a person, each character is wholly developed, and the trajectory of all the chaotically intersecting lives moves forward. Ms. Lively attends to these with great care, and with every detail and keenly observed moment, the reader accrues more information about where it all leads. There are consequences to missteps and random acts. . . . Three cheers for this gorgeous writing.”
San Francisco Chronicle
 
“In this densely patterned novel . . . Lively observes how the ‘strange notional movements’ of world economies can ‘wreck individual lives.’ This novel shows that if minor events wreak major effects, so can grand systems shape our own small ends—and our beginnings, too.”
Marie Claire
 
“Wonderful . . . British treasure Penelope Lively examines the effects of a seemingly random crime on a group of London acquaintances and strangers.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Here, one of our most talented writers has written 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.”
Entertainment Weekly
 
“Lives intersect in unexpected and comical ways in this breezy, engrossing novel. . . . Lively infuses her motley cast of characters with a blend of pathos and sharp satire, and though How It All Began is light fare, this deftly paced novel remains compulsively readable throughout.”
The Washington Post
 
“The ever-productive, ever-graceful Penelope Lively returns to several pet themes—memory, history and the powerful role of happenstance in reshaping lives—with a fresh and charming novel. . . . She has provided a golden passport that will sweep you through the border control of other people’s lives.”
The New Yorker
 
“In this mischievous novel, Lively traces the genealogy of randomness that messes up the lives of strangers. . . . Moving skillfully between streams-of-consciousness and a wry omniscient voice, Lively investigates her characters’ motives and afterthoughts with precision and tenderness.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Time, memory, contingency: these are subjects that have fascinated Penelope Lively all her life, and to which she has returned again and again in her distinguished forty-year writing career. From her early children's books to marvelous, humane adult novels like The Photograph (2003), Consequences (2007) and Moon Tiger (for which she was awarded the 1987 Booker Prize), to arresting works of autobiography like Oleander, Jacaranda (1994) and A House Unlocked (2001), she has continued to examine and experiment with these ideas. "The idea that memory is linear is nonsense," she once stated in an interview with The Guardian. "What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself — can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time."

This elusive and tricky concept is one of the great subjects of all fiction, and Lively's contributions to the conversation have been notable. With How It All Began, she returns to this lifelong fascination through the eyes and voice of Charlotte Rainsford, a narrator who, like herself, is in her late seventies and able to look back on what seems to be a whole series of past lives. "Charlotte views her younger selves with a certain detachment. They are herself, but other incarnations, innocents going about half-forgotten business." Her current self is irritatingly infirm. "The knee. The back. And the cataracts. And those twinges in the left shoulder and the varicose veins and the phlebitis and having to get up at least once every night to pee and the fits of irritation at people who leave inaudible messages on the answerphone?The twilight years — that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot — roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about." This litany of age-related ills is what we sometimes called an "organ recital." And yet Charlotte is not discontented with her lot. Old age has its compensations, like every other time of life. One of them is depth of experience, richness of memory. "The past is not gone, but is now that abiding ballast without which [Charlotte] would capsize. She visits constantly, in appreciative recognition of that moment, this place, those people."

How It All Began comprises a thoughtful play on Lively's fascination with chaos theory — the idea that a small, random event can cause large changes over time. ("A butterfly in the Amazon forest flaps its wings and provokes a tornado in Texas.") In the novel, the agent for change is Charlotte — or rather, the anonymous mugger who knocks Charlotte down in a London street. Now with a broken hip on top of old age's ordinary ailments, Charlotte must surrender her treasured independence and go to stay, at least for a couple of months, with her daughter Rose and Rose's husband, Gerry. It seems no more than a temporary inconvenience, and as Charlotte and the good-humored Rose enjoy one another's company, there's not much real hardship involved. Charlotte, whose own beloved husband died two decades earlier, worries that Rose's marriage to the undemonstrative Gerry lacks not only passion but even interest. Rose, too, occasionally entertains that disturbing thought.

In the meantime, the ripple effects keep moving outward. Rose, occupied with her mother's hip surgery, is unable to accompany her boss, Henry, a pompous, old-school historian, to the conference at which he is supposed to give a talk on eighteenth-century politics. In her stead Henry takes along his niece Marion, an interior decorator. This choice leads to a minor trauma for poor Henry, who, in the absence of Rose and her carefully prepared notes, goes dry on the lecture podium. (In this scene Lively gives a particularly harrowing description of old-age amnesia — we truly suffer for the unfortunate man.) This misadventure leads in turn to a new job for Marion, offered her by someone she meets at the conference — a job that will eventually turn very sour. And it incidentally causes the breakup of the marriage of Marion's lover, Jeremy Dalton, whose wife, Stella, happens to intercept Marion's affectionate call on Jeremy's cell phone, canceling their date. Jeremy's fevered attempts to hang on to Stella (an eminently satisfactory wife in that she is rich, pretty, and subservient) while still retaining Marion's sexual services are amusingly related.

The ripple effect goes on. Charlotte, a teacher of literature, dislikes being idle and arranges to do some tutoring out of Rose's home. Her new student is Anton, an eastern European economic immigrant eager to improve his level of reading in English. Books and reading have defined Charlotte's life: "She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience." Books are her "essential solace, relief, support system." To communicate this joy to Anton becomes a way of renewing her sense of vocation. She starts him off gently, with Where the Wild Things Are. In a couple of months he moves on to Charlotte's Web. (The image of the middle-aged Anton hurtling home in the tube at night, immersed in the doings of Wilbur and Fern, is perhaps the most enduring one of this novel.) Inevitably, feelings develop between the lonely Anton and the emotionally unfulfilled Rose.

Penelope Lively is not only an intelligent author, she is a supremely generous one who communicates a real love for her characters — even the opportunistic Jeremy, the self-important Henry, the stodgy Gerry. She brings great disruption into their existences, and as she is clearly a merciful creator, we can expect lives to be smoothed out, ends to be tied. But Lively is too canny a novelist, and too true to her vision of life as fortuitous and contingent, to tie them very neatly. "An ending is an artificial device; we like endings, they are satisfying, convenient, and a point has been made. But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course." As Charlotte remarks to Anton with characteristic wisdom, "There's a fearful term that's in fashion at the moment — closure. People apparently believe it is desirable, and attainable." Lively might not believe in the possibility of closure or of the conventional happy ending. But not one of the lives in this lovely and penetrating novel remains untouched by hope.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670023448
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/5/2012
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt but settled in England after the war and took a degree in history at St Anne's College, Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. She was married to the late Professor Jack Lively, has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren, and lives in Oxfordshire and London.

Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger. Her novels include Passing On, shortlisted for the 1989 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, City of the Mind, Cleopatra's Sister and Heat Wave.

Penelope Lively has also written radio and television scripts and has acted as presenter for a BBC Radio 4 program on children's literature. She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award.

Good To Know

In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Lively shared some fun facts about herself:

"I came late to writing -- I was in my late 30s before I wrote anything. The years before that had been busy with small children, and I seem to have fallen into writing almost by accident. Since then, I have never stopped -- books for children to begin with, then a period writing for both adults and children -- short stories also -- then for adults only when the children's books, sadly, left me."

"It has been a busy 30 years, but because writing is a solitary activity and I like the company of others, I have also always had other involvements -- with writers' organizations such as Britain's Society of Authors, with PEN, with the Royal Society of Literature, and, for six years, as a member of the Board of the British Library (the opposite number of the Library of Congress) which I regarded as a great privilege -- what could be more important than the national archive?"

"I have always been an avid user of libraries; like any writer, much of my inspiration comes from life as it is lived -- what you see and hear and experience, but my novels have sprung from some abiding interest -- the operation of memory, the effects of choice and contingency, the conflicting nature of evidence -- and these concerns are fueled by reading: serendipitous and eclectic reading."

"I am first and foremost a reader myself. I don't think I could write if I wasn't constantly reading. I both wind and unwind by reading -- stimulus and relaxation both. I used to love tramping the landscape, and gardening, but arthritis rules out both of those, so I do both vicariously through books. I live in the city now, but feel out of place -- I have always before lived most of the time in the country: I miss wide skies, weather, seasons."

"Never mind, there are compensations, and London is a very different place from the pinched and bomb-shattered place to which I came as a schoolgirl in 1945 -- now it is multicultural, polyglot, vibrant, unpredictable, in a state of constant change but with that bedrock of permanence that an old place always has. I like to escape from time to time -- mainly to West Somerset, where we have a family cottage and I can admire my daughter's garden -- she has the gardening gene in a big way and is far more skilled than I ever was -- bird-watch, walk a bit, talk to people I've known for decades, and see the night sky crackling with the stars that the city blots out."

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 17, 1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cairo, Egypt
    1. Education:
      Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 28 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(7)

4 Star

(11)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(2)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2012

    The Butterfly Effect

    I thoroughly enjoyed this sweet book, as I have everything else Penelope Lively has written. This is not the first time she has explored the relationships between coincidence and personal history. I'm glad she sort of wrapped things up at the end, although I wonder how many other readers besides me were waiting for a first meeting between Charlotte and Henry. --catwak

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 5, 2012

    A good solid read

    A fair amount of life experiences are necessary for full enjoyment of this well written novel.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 19, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This book had a very British flair and style of writing. I have

    This book had a very British flair and style of writing. I have decided
    that I am not a fan of this style. The premise of the story is great but
    the story moves rather slowly jumping from character to character. None
    of the characters are memorable and there is nothing deep, provocative,
    or profound about this story. If you have to choose between this and
    something else, choose the other book!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 1, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended

    A deft, nuanced story about circumstance, memory, relationships, aging.Highly recommended.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 1, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Oh, I dearly loved this book about an event which spawned a se



    Oh, I dearly loved this book about an event which spawned a series of follow-on events, some of which could be termed momentous, in the context of a life. The story was funny and true and ridiculous and painful and all those things that life can be. It was comforting to hear about folks whose lives had hit a major speed bump but who managed, by shuffling the deck, to usher in a new chapter in their lives, one that they liked even better. But it is lightly told, and not so painful for us, safely behind our reading glasses, sipping tea and considering just how awful divorce could be…for the characters of course.

    I was also struck by parallels between the theme in this book by Lively and Kate Atkinson’s new offering Life After Life . It is almost as though the grande Dames of British Literature were given a writing assignment to mull over the possibility that Hitler had never been born or had died in early life, before the tragedy of World War II. The assignment might have specified that they didn’t have to focus on the 1940’s, they just had to mention Hitler and make their story relevant to a new reality. Consider Lively’s contribution, that she places in the mouth of Henry, retired University professor and a man sure of his talent to make history interesting and relevant:
    I myself have a soft spot for what is known as the Cleopatra’s nose theory of history—the proposal that had the nose of Cleopatra been an inch longer the fortunes of Rome would have been different. A reductio ad absurdam, perhaps, but a reference to random causality that makes a lot of sense when we think about the erratic sequence of events that we call history. And we find that we home in on the catalysts—the intervention of those seminal figures who will direct events. Caesar himself. Charlemagne. Napoleon. Hitler. If this man or that—no, this person or that—had not existed, how differently could things have turned out? Focus upon a smaller canvas—England in the eighteenth century, of, indeed, any other century—and we find again that it is personalities that direct events, the human hand that steers the course of time…A decision is made in one place, and far away a thousand will die.”
    Then, consider Kate Atkinson’s contemplation of this question, whom she gives to Ursula, her protagonist :
    “Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”

    And it is a great theme to be going along with: eliminating those pesky outsized actors from our history. After all, isn’t life complicated enough with just our own mistakes to manage?

    In any case, the thing that really caught my attention in this book, and that I loved above even the story (something which Lively spends some time considering—how a story can draw us in) is the discussion an older woman, a retired teacher of literature as it happens, has with a younger economic migrant to whom she is teaching the fundamentals of reading. They speak of language, words, and the passion the younger man has for stories. He’d had trouble learning English, both spoken and written, but he was passionate about stories. So she teaches him, rather than the language of commerce, the language of poetry. She gave him stories, and his passion for stories developed into a passion for words, which he collected assiduously and used ardently. He loved, and was loved though words. It was delightful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 11, 2012

    A thought-provoking, British read

    I enjoy thinking about the cause and effect of things and how if one bad event had not happened in my life, I would not have gotten to experience all the good that resulted from it. This book is an interesting and cerebral journey down the various "effect" paths that were all "caused" by a woman being mugged. It is not very fast paced and it doesn't quite wrap the ending up with a bow, so if that bothers you, you may want to skip this one. I found it very enjoyable and very realistic. I love me some good, British fiction!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The book is enjoyable. It starts with the premise that one act c

    The book is enjoyable. It starts with the premise that one act can impact many others. And so it does, to our endearment. The author tells the tale smoothly and with humor, yet it does lag for a brief spell. Perhaps there are too many characters. Mark, for one, could easily have been dispensed with. Or the relationship between him and the Lord could have taken the course it seemed bound to follow- the bedroom. But I am not an author, so I can make suggestions like that without having to worry about the consequences.
    I did like the book, and one can argue whether I have a fair amount of life experiences!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 22, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    How It All Began by Penelope is a thought provoking fictional ac

    How It All Began by Penelope is a thought provoking fictional account of how the

    lives of multiple people can be impacted by a random accident. It reminds me of widening ripples after a pebble has been thrown in a pond.



    Charlotte Rainsford is walking down a street in London, when she is mugged by a teenager. She falls and breaks her hip, and her life is understandably altered due to her injury. She cannot live alone while her hip is mending and mobility is severely limited. The reader also finds that the mugging incident triggers actions that lead to a marriage on the brink of divorce, the possible bankruptcy of an interior decorator’s business, the less than stellar performance at a lecture of a well-known historian, and how an immigrant's attempt to improve his life in the UK impacts the course of a twenty year marriage.



    My Thoughts



    "How It All Began" is the perfect book to read while curled up in your favorite chair with an afghan and a hot chocolate. The reader will want to time with this book to allow full immersion in the story. The characters are ordinary people living ordinary lives. A random incident changes all their lives and the reader is compelled to keep reading to find out how the story unfolds. Will the couple on the brink of divorce end or mend their marriage? Will the interior decorator be able to save her business or will she have to change career direction? Will the historian be able to restore his reputation in the academic world or will he fade into obscurity with a blemish on his record? Penelope Lively answers these questions in such a way that reader has additional questions. Ms. Lively leaves her readers wanting more, an excellent achievement for any writer.



    By Celeste Thomas

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 28, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Although simple and uncomplicated, a sweet little English read.

    Although simple and uncomplicated, a sweet little English read. Good story. Great beach read!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 7, 2013

    The first Penelope Lively book I've read. It was a book group c

    The first Penelope Lively book I've read. It was a book group choice but one that I thoroughtly enjoyed.

    It has the gentle quality that I associate with many of the boks written about life in England.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2012

    Great Book!

    I really enjoyed this book.

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