How It All Began

How much does chance play in our lives? What would happen to the lives of other people if our own life was changed in some measure? These themes form the premise of Penelope Lively's new book, How It All Began. In it, Charlotte Rainsford, a retired teacher, is accosted by a thief and breaks her hip in the ensuing fall. When she goes to live with her daughter, Rose, to recuperate, lives are disrupted and infidelities are exposed.

Charlotte is a highly literate and empathetic woman whose routines are thrown completely out of sync by her accident. Although retired from teaching, she now devotes herself to teaching English as a second language to recent immigrants. Confined to her daughter's house and dependent upon her for routine tasks, she acutely misses her avocation as well as her books. She is stoic about the pain she is in, often choosing to remain alert and not take her pain-killers in favor of losing herself through reading. One feels that Charlotte is the voice of the author; her insights into the humbling experience of aging, her knowledge of literature, and her sheer love of books reflect the persona of Penelope Lively herself.

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system....She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand and experience...She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without. (pp. 34-35)

Charlotte is, by far, the most likable of the female characters, as well as the most introspective. Her daughter, Rose, is not a reader, and in fact, might gain some insight into herself and her choices if she were. Instead, she falls for one of her mother's students, Anton, and becomes emotionally entangled with him. As with most affairs, she wonders about her feelings for this ambitious man and about the lack of passion in her own marriage. Rose, unlike her mother, has always chosen the easy route--she had married her first serious suitor and adamantly opposed having a career. Instead, she chooses a job "assisting" an aging 18th century political scholar, Lord Henry Peters.

Lord Henry is indeed a foil to the humble Charlotte. He is arrogant and completely lacks self-awareness. Like a few academics, he thinks the public is yearning to read more of his obscure writing. Yet Lord Henry was once well respected in his field--a fine orator who captured his academic audiences. Suffering from memory problems, he makes a fool of himself at a public speaking event. In order to regain his reputation, he decides to approach the BBC for a series. Lord Henry's interactions with the young women with whom he must now gain favor are some of the most comical in the book. Penelope Lively looks sympathetically at how aging makes one invisible, and how dwindling capabilities make fools of us all.

Other characters whose lives are affected by Charlotte's mishap are Marion, Lord Henry's equally smug, interior designer niece. When Rose is unable to accompany Lord Henry to his speaking engagement, Marion does so. Lives change when she texts her lover--the married Jeremy. His high-strung wife, Stella, reads the text and immediately goes to a divorce attorney--a lawyer interested only in the bottom line. What follows is a delightful comedy of manners.

The novel's greatest strength, though, resides in its development of its central character--Charlotte. Her stoicism and her resolute determination to get better and live independently are admirable. The reader feels great compassion for her as her pain renders the language of Henry James too difficult to appreciate. She elicits both sympathy and laughter when she runs out of reading materials at Rose's home, having to resort to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to accompany her to the doctor. In a hilarious scene in the waiting room, poking fun at England's health care system, she worries that reading this sort of book casts her in a poor light. Any reader of literary fiction will laugh aloud at the snobbery that affects us all.

The very title of this book, How It all Began, reflects Penelope Lively's love of literature. Her novel is a tribute to books and reading wrapped in a comedy about love, loss, and self-awareness. The very essence is about what it is to be human.

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