Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: How It All Began by Penelope Lively

I have long been a fan of Penelope Lively's homely yet elegant writing so I convinced my book club to read this novel about the ripples and reverberations of one small happening in one person's life on so many others far and wide, both connected and seemingly unconnected. Chaos theory or the butterfly effect is the study of unpredictable chains of events set into motion by an initial condition. Penelope Lively's novel How It All Began is a brilliant study of chaos theory at work in characters' lives.

When elderly ESL teacher Charlotte Rainsford is mugged and pushed to the ground breaking her hip, the repercussions set off a chain of reactions that upend the lives of a whole cast of characters. Charlotte must move in with her daughter Rose while she recovers, causing Rose to have to abandon her employer, the aging and pompously self-assured former academic Lord Henry Peters. With his assistant Rose unavailable to him, Henry calls on his interior designer niece Marion to accompany him to a conference lecture whereupon she is unable to keep a rendezvous with her married lover Jeremy. While Marion makes an important business connection at the luncheon after the conference, she has sent a text to Jeremy that, intercepted by his wife Stella, will threaten his happily settled life and marriage. And that is how it all began.

Each of the characters' lives continues outward from these unusual and yet prosaic instances forced into being by the mugging. Some characters are derailed from the path their life was taking while others are oblivious to the changed circumstances. And most of them are ignorant of the catalyst. No matter what effect the ripples have, their lives continue onward in ordinary ways with no fireworks or major plot events, just the sort of adjustments everyone makes on a daily basis. The novel is very much character driven and reflective. It touches on the march of time, memory, aging, relevance, infidelity, and the state of the economy. And like the chaos theory that pushes the tale into being would posit, there is no implied ending but instead an infinite continuation of the ripples of reaction. The characters' lives intertwined by accident, in realistic ways, through connections never neatly resolved or recognized.

On the surface an easy read, Lively is actually masterful in her design of this novel. The characters are so commonplace as to be unremarkable and it can be hard to connect to them as a reader but in fact their very ordinariness is important, highlighting as it does the underlying idea of the butterfly wing's influence at all levels of existence. The converging and diverging threads of the characters' lives are carefully handled and teased apart as the novel progresses and the whole of it comes full circle in the end even if that circle is more an open ended spiral than a closed and complete ending. Definitely not your usual narrative structure, this is a bit more work to read and appreciate but worth it all the same.


  1. This one is on my shelf waiting for some one on one time:) I think it sounds great. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I've read some of her books. Not this one though.


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