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