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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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 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.)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Entertainment Weekly
 
“Lives intersect in unexpected and comical ways in this breezy, engrossing novel.”
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 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 Boston Globe
 
“Another virtuoso performance . . . Lively continues to surprise and illuminate, writing to ever more dazzling effect.”
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.”
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.”
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
From the Publisher
 
“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.” — The New York Times Book Review

 
“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 New Yorker

 
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 Boston Globe

 
“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 Washington Post

 
“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.” — Minneapolis Star-Tribune

 
“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.” — The Seattle 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.”

The Washington Times

 
“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.” — San Francisco Chronicle

 
“Wonderful . . . British treasure Penelope Lively examines the effects of a seemingly random crime on a group of London acquaintances and strangers.” — Marie Claire

 
“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.” — Entertainment Weekly

 
“This delightful, absorbing novel relies on a sophisticated and skillfully realized structure to introduce and then follow its endearingly ordinary characters. . . . 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 illustrates her knack for charming familiarity and just the right dash of surprise.” — Publishers Weekly

 
“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. . . . Throughout this brilliantly choreographed and surreptitiously poignant chain-reaction comedy of chance and change, Lively 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.” — Booklist (starred review)

 
“Explores the far-reaching effect of happenstance, as individual circumstances shift, lives change, and the known is perceived in an altogether new light. . . . Lively delivers her story about these intertwined lives with faultless dexterity, sly humor, keen insight, and deft economy . . . A feel-good masterpiece that will delight faithful fans as well as those new to the work of this consummate storyteller.” — Library Journal (starred review)

 
“More stylish than many writers half her age . . . Lively knows a thing of two about storytelling. Her veteran understanding of the function of narrative in our lives is impressive but lightly worn. . . . Her candour is refreshing, and reminds us that you don’t have to lie to yourself to live life finely until the very end.” — The Times (London)

 
“Lively remains a sublime storyteller. . . . She has us riveted with curiosity as to what will happen next, yet also keeps us consistently aware of the nature of the illusion.” — The Guardian

 
“A kaleidoscopic picture that disintegrates and then reassembles itself, in a manner that is surprising and completely satisfying . . . Lively’s style has a beautiful economy, and she can be wickedly funny. . . . This is classic Penelope Lively—deeply comical, essentially kind-hearted, wonderfully written and seasoned with a rare wisdom.” — The Literary Review

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 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

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

“Our life,” says Anton, an Eastern European immigrant to contemporary London in Penelope Lively’s How It All Began, “is . . . very much accident” (67 in the finished book).

Anton’s observation might serve as an epigraph for Lively’s novel, a richly conceived and exquisitely written book that is all about the haphazardness—and the tiny miracles—of unintended consequences. The dominoes begin to fall when seventy–seven –year –old Charlotte Rainsford is knocked to the pavement by a purse–snatching hoodlum. The independent Charlotte reluctantly moves in with her daughter, Rose, and her husband to convalesce. Rose, as a result, misses some days of work as the personal assistant of retired historian Lord Henry Peters, and her replacement fails to bring his lordship’s notes with her to an important lecture. As confusion mounts, the temp assistant sends an indiscreet text message to her lover, which, falling into his wife’s hands, instantly becomes the smoking gun of his infidelity. Before the ensuing chains of events have run their course, people who have never met Charlotte’s attacker will face financial ruin. Others will reach awkwardly for fame and redemption. Still others will fall in and out of love. They will lose their spouses and strive desperately to win them back—and all because of a random crime on a city sidewalk.

Charlotte’s misfortune brings together an extraordinary assortment of characters: the self–absorbed but lovable Lord Henry, who is convinced that his dusty, arcane scholarship on eighteenth–century British politics is just the thing for a hit television series; his niece Marion, whose acquaintance with go–getter financier George Harrington might either be the biggest break of her career or its most unqualified disaster; Jeremy Dalton, a seat–of–his–pants antiques dealer who loves his neurotic wife, Stella, but just might love Marion a trifle more; and Anton, whose dedicated efforts to decipher the English language lead him into a series of private reading lessons with Charlotte—and into some private meetings of a very different kind with Charlotte’s married daughter, Rose. And at the center of it all is Charlotte herself, struggling with the aches and pains of growing older as she rereads her favorite classic novels, tries to reassert her independence, and muses deeply on life in a world where happenstance and irrational desire are often stronger forces than reason and persistence.

A genial but insightful look at the gentle chaos that we call life, How It All Began is also a story about storytelling: how we use narratives to create meaning, to comfort one another, and to marshal the courage and humor we need to face yet another nonsensical day. Delightfully sympathetic and nuanced in the treatment of its characters but keenly serious in its understanding of human relationships and the crazy accidents that cause them to form, change, and potentially dissolve,How It All Began is sure to rank as one of Dame Penelope Lively’s most brilliant novels to date.

ABOUT PENELOPE LIVELY

Born Penelope Low in Cairo in 1933, Dame Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt before being sent to English boarding school at the age of twelve. She read modern history at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She was married in 1957 to the academician Jack Lively. She achieved success as an author, initially as a writer of children’s fiction. She was awarded the Carnegie Medal for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) and the Whitbread Award for A Stitch in Time (1976). After she turned to adult fiction, Lively’s novels The Road to Lichfield and According to Mark (1984) were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an honor that she won in 1987 with her novel Moon Tiger. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, she was recently elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Dame Penelope lives in North London.
 

A CONVERSATION WITH PENELOPE LIVELY

Q. We would like to congratulate you on your recently being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. What were your thoughts on receiving this extraordinary honor?

Our Honors system must seem somewhat arcane to you in the U.S., but it’s been around for a long time (along with the now–defunct term “British Empire”) and we’re kind of used to it! I’m startled to be a Dame—my (grown–up) granddaughters are vastly amused but say I have to get more Dame–like, so I’m working on that.

Q. How It All Began takes as its premise the idea that chaos theory can be applied to social relations. How did you come to be interested in chaos theory as the conceptual mainspring for a novel?

As a nonscientist, I’ve always enjoyed reading the kind of accessible science now written for people like me, and I was fascinated by the concept of chaos theory when first I heard of it. I won’t pretend that I fully—or even partly—understand the physics, but I have come to see it as a metaphor, and that interpretation eventually turned into a novel.

Q. Your novel executes a lovely pas de deux between the chaos of life and the ordering power of narrative: events happen at random, but storytellers give them coherence and meaning. Yet if we take the thrust of your argument, the order imposed is always a kind of falsehood, and the very idea of “story” is a species of prevarication. Any thoughts?

That’s an interesting—and challenging—question! Well, yes, there’s an inherent ambiguity around the idea of meaning and coherence in story, which is trying to impose order on life as lived, where order there is not. I think the storyteller is not so much trying to create an ideal, as play around with “what if,” propose outcomes that may seem to have coherence, or to be inevitable. Perhaps story is some kind of distorted mirror image of life. But in the last resort I think it is an expression of a basic human drive—we have always told stories, not necessarily to supply meanings, but just because humankind seems to need them.

Q. We found it interesting that you decided to keep Charlotte’s mugger, the “catalyst” for all that ensues in the novel, almost completely in the shadows. Charlotte has no interest at all in knowing about him, and he receives our full attention only in a closing paragraph. Was there any point in the development of How It All Began when the mugger played a larger role? Why did you decide to keep him more or less offstage?

I remember that at some point in writing the novel I thought about bringing the mugger on, giving him/her a role—and almost immediately knew that to be the wrong thing to do. No, no. The catalyst, simply and solely.

Q. Lord Henry Peters is a marvelous piece of literary alchemy. He’s pretty clearly a self–important bore to almost everyone who knows him, and it’s hard to imagine too many people sitting through his dreamed–of memoir. And yet your account of him is invested with a life and interest that he is unable to impart to his own account of himself. How did you do it?

In any novel, I find, there are characters who obligingly jump fully fledged onto the page and others who lurk in the shadows. Henry Peters was of the first order—but how or why that happens I really don’t know! If I did, writing fiction would be much easier than it is. Anyway, he was most obliging, and I enjoyed creating him. I’ve known one or two of his kind; I never use “real” people as a character—any character has to be custom–made for a book—but one uses an arm or a leg.

Q. We loved the contrast between the novel’s two marriages in crisis. Jeremy Dalton scrambles like mad to rescue his marriage to Stella, whereas Gerry never has any idea that he and Rose are tiptoeing along the edge of the abyss. Do you enjoy creating such subtle contrasts and parallels in your work?

Of the two marriages in the novel, I don’t think that that of Rose and Gerry was ever in mortal danger—they had rubbed along, and will continue to do so, which is after all the stuff of many marriages. Jeremy and Stella are more precarious because of Jeremy’s innate fecklessness—goodness knows what will happen to them. I don’t think I particularly intended a contrast, but if there is one, then that is not a bad thing.

Q. It seems to us that one of the points that make moralizing about How It All Began so difficult is that seemingly ill events have positive outcomes: to take just one instance, if Charlotte doesn’t get mugged, Anton never discovers Jane Austen. Might one read How It All Began as hinting that we are unable to distinguish good from evil, even when it almost literally hits us in the face?

Ah, now that of course is what happens all the time in all of our chaos–directed lives, and prompts all the clichés to do with swings and roundabouts, an ill wind, etc. Most of us spend a good deal of time trying to tease out the positive in this way, which may be a version of T. S. Eliot’s “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Q. Many readers are likely to relish your wry dismissal of The Da Vinci Code. Some others, who rather fancy Dan Brown, may wonder why you chose to rap his knuckles. What are your thoughts on that thing known as the contemporary bestseller, and what do you think we have done to deserve it?

I’m sure Dan Brown can withstand Charlotte’s dismissal. Actually, I think bestsellers are interesting because they say more about their times than their own merits, or absence of merit. They seem to define some kind of need—for derring–do adventure, or Da Vinci code hocus–pocus, or whatever. But of course so much depends on hype—the deliberate creation of a bestseller. What is satisfying is the occasional arrival of the word–of–mouth bestseller of real worth—when readers themselves have voted.

Q. In our current moment, as the baby boomers start picking up their first retirement checks, it’s becoming more and more common for novels to address the challenges of aging. Charlotte Rainsford, in fact, is almost your precise contemporary. How much of your own experience of growing more mature is reflected in her character?

I certainly couldn’t have written Charlotte as a character—or not as a convincing one—at any other time of my life. One of the few advantages of being an old writer is that you have been there—you know what it was to be in your forties, fifties. . . . When you are younger, of course you want to write of older people and have to stick your neck out, use empathy, imagination, observation. But experience trumps all.

Q. The eighteenth century turns up quite a lot in How It All Began, whether in Lord Henry’s work or in a copy of Johnson’sRasselas in an Eritrean driver’s minicab. What is the eighteenth–century subtext of your novel meant to signify?

I don’t think the eighteenth century is in any way a subtext. Henry Peters’s field of study was carefully chosen—the sort of historical field that a historian interested only in politics and personalities would choose. And the Rasselas–reading minicab driver is fished from my own life—I couldn’t make that up! I met the driver one evening a few years ago and had a fascinating conversation.

Q. Charlotte once took up reading Saul Bellow to discover “how it is to be American” (35). What words of caution or encouragement do you have for an American reading your work to learn how it is to be English?

I’ve long felt that the way to learn about a culture or a time is to read its fiction. If I want to know what nineteenth–century France or England was like I go to the novelists—equally, the contemporary world. I didn’t cross the Atlantic first until I was in my forties, but I had read lots of American literature, both past and contemporary. There was a resonance, from the moment I stepped off the plane. I’m English, and write out of a particular culture and experience, but probably with echoes of others, which stem from a lifetime of reading; I’m not exclusively English, but the sort of hybrid that anyone is who has spent a lot of time absorbing other ways of living and thinking.

Q. You observe that Lord Henry enjoys rereading his own work. Do you?

I dislike rereading my own work and never do unless I have to look something up.

Q. What is your concept of a wonderful reader?

I think a wonderful reader—the ideal reader—is anyone who reads widely, experimentally, critically but not judgmentally, who is prepared to try anything, and for whom reading is central to life, who couldn’t do without it. The last two apply to me—and some of the rest, though I know I am guilty of being judgmental sometimes, and I can’t try science fiction anymore, I’m afraid. But I don’t think “wonderful” is quite the right word—I’d rather just have “committed.” That’s what I am, and I think it’s what most members of reading groups are, or they wouldn’t be in one.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How It All Began is a book about reading and writing. What does reading give to Lively’s more literate characters? What does the absence of reading deny to the others?
  • How might Lively’s application of chaos theory to human relations conflict with the idea of a divinely ordered universe? What quarrels might a religious person have with Lively’s representation of events and their causes?
  • Given the randomness of events in the world that Lively describes, where seemingly wicked events can produce unforeseen happy results, how is it possible to distinguish good from evil?
  • Lively is fond of inserting historians into her fiction. What precisely does a character like Lord Henry contribute to the mood and structure of How It All Began?
  • What are the differences in the ways in which Charlotte and Lord Henry confront old age? Which approach should we admire more?
  • Charlotte’s mugger notwithstanding, the characters who come closest to true evil in How It All Began are unscrupulous professional men like the grasping solicitor Paul Newsome and the amoral financier George Harrington. What does Lively appear to think about the ethics of powerful people in the modern age?
  • Lively shows us two married couples whose shared lives are endangered by infidelities, either real or contemplated. How might these two subplots be compared and contrasted?
  • How It All Began is acutely conscious of the European debt crisis. However, the novel’s embattled characters tend to have either marketable skills or salable property that they can eventually fall back on. How might How It All Beganhave been different if Lively had chosen to make her characters’ circumstances more dire?
  • What does How It All Began suggest about the effect of television on the intellectual culture of Britain? Does Lord Henry, for all of his dry pomposity, deserve more of a soapbox than electronic media are prepared to give him?
     
  • What characteristics does Lively seem to most admire in a woman?
  • What traits does she evidently most despise in a man?
  • Does Rose make the right choice between Gerry and Anton? What are the arguments on either side of this question?
  • Near the end of How It All Began, Lively gives us a glimpse of the baby who lives next door to Charlotte. How does this brief insertion fit in thematically with the rest of the novel?
  • Charlotte observes that the modern novel has tried to free itself of messages but that they still seem to “creep in here and there” (69). What messages do you think have crept into How It All Began, and did Lively really try all that hard to keep them out?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 31 )
Rating Distribution

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(13)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • 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!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • 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

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended

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

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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 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!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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 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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