How It All Began by Penelope Lively
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How It All Began is a book to read for its interesting and subtle moments. It's great for readers who like to identify with the way characters react. It's not a book to read for plot. It has no overall plot, just subplots that are loosely connected, but have little affect on each other once they are going. Some of the stories end, but others don't. Penelope Lively seems to have done this intentionally, because toward the end of the book she says, “An ending is an artificial device...”
Anton and Henry are two intriguing personalities. Anton is an immigrant to England where the story takes place, coming from an unnamed eastern European country. He's a trained accountant, but has problems speaking English, so he's had to settle for manual work. We get to follow his struggles with the language and with his attraction to Rose. Henry is also an absorbing character. He's very out-of-date with his style of dress, mannerisms, and general attitudes. Combine those characteristics with mild dementia and Penelope Lively has created a fascinating personality.
However, it is the women who are the most captivating characters in this novel. Charlotte, Rose, and Marion alone make the book worth reading. Charlotte is Rose's mother as well as the woman whose mugging starts the novel rolling. She is also Anton's English tutor, which is how Rose and he meet. I loved reading Charlotte's reactions when I knew Rose's secret. Marion has her own set of relationship issues with both her business partners and her love interest.
The premise of How It All Began is that a single event can cause a number of changes to occur in the lives of loosely connected people. Most of the subplots hold true to that idea, but one of the major ones, does not. This is the story about the reaction of Henry, an aging historian, to problems he had when delivering a speech on 18th century life. Henry was embarrassed by his performance and decides to compensate for his failure by pursuing a different venue to express his ideas – television. Henry's life had been altered slightly because of the event that was “how it all began,” but the only change was that his niece had attended his lecture instead of his personal assistant. It seems to me his life would have played out the same even if the original event had never occurred.
Another nice aspect to this novel is Lively's tendency to branch off from her story to make interesting observations about aspects of life. Here's a section where Charlotte is thinking about how our perception of time changes as we age:
One persuasive explanation has to do with the changed nature of experience itself; when we are young, novelty abounds. We do, see, feel, taste, smell newly, day after day; this puts a brake on time. It hovers, while we savor each fresh moment. In old age, we've seen it all, to put it bluntly. Been there, done that. So time whisks by. Ah, that's why–those interminable days of childhood.
The thought is absorbing, even though it has very little to do with the rest of the book. Charlotte is also an avid reader, so we also get her opinions of readers such as Henry James. That's fun, too.
In short, this is a good book for readers who like interesting, quotable thoughts and well developed characters, but who don't care if a plot is a bit disconnected.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
View all my reviews