Seventy-seven-year-old Charlotte Rainsford is a retired teacher who is very independent. So when she is thrown to the ground by a mugger and breaks her hip, her world is turned upside down. She is taken to the hospital, has surgery, slowly recovers, goes to rehab for physiotherapy, and is set to go live with her daughter, Rose, and her husband. But in Penelope Lively’s 20th novel, HOW IT ALL BEGAN, the ramifications from the “event” impact seven other people. Like the “Chaos Theory,” the overlapping circumstances and coincidences converge to create upheaval that changes everyone’s lives.
"Lively is a very sophisticated writer who shares with the reader the importance of 'the story,' the 'and what comes next.' She analyzes her characters, who are fully fleshed out and play their roles flawlessly."
Lively is a very sophisticated writer who shares with the reader the importance of “the story,” the “and what comes next.” She analyzes her characters, who are fully fleshed out and play their roles flawlessly. For example, she gives us Rose, Charlotte’s daughter who is mired in both a boring job and an equally boring marriage. Not that she would do anything about either. But when her mother begins to teach reading to an immigrant named Anton, Rose is suddenly smitten. What will she do?
Rose works for Lord Henry Peters, a scholar whose specialty is the 18th century. He “has been chagrined and humiliated and is desperate to reestablish himself.” He even has plans for a television documentary he wants to write and sell. When he has an appointment he needs to be driven to, Rose can’t take him --- that’s the day she is bringing Charlotte home from the hospital. Ever-clever Lord Henry enlists the services of his niece, Marion, an interior designer who is beginning to feel the money crunch. On the trip, she meets a charming man who wants her to design his new apartment. It’s strange that he cannot be found when the bills begin to drown Marion.
Another relevant part of Marion’s life is that she is having an affair with a dealer in used furniture and any other “prize” he thinks he can sell. All goes well for the adulterers until the wife intercepts a text message with the closing “I love you.” Thus we now have another, albeit peripheral character in the wife. How will she fit into the convoluted relationship of which she is now aware? Her husband wants her back but does not wish to give up Marion. Marion, on the other hand, is not so sure this is where true love lies.
Charlotte is a professional reader. She will read anything, even romance novels and “women’s magazines” to pass the time until she can concentrate on the likes of Dostoevsky and Henry James. After a time, it is Anton’s role to leave Charlotte’s tutelage. He is downhearted at this new event, but Charlotte tells him he is starting a new chapter in his own story. Rose also has some chapters to come that she has no idea about.
At the end of HOW IT ALL BEGAN, Penelope Lively ties the various stories together. She does not leave the reader wondering about this one or that one. She is too good to do that. But she ends the novel on this note: “And what of the mugger? The catalyst, he or she who set everything off. The delinquent --- fourteen years old, male…was himself set upon…by a hostile gang and relieved of [Charlotte’s money.] Beyond him, unknown and of no interest, he had left Charlotte on…crutches, the embattled Daltons, Henry in his humiliation, Marion, Rose, Anton… Demonstrating that no man is an island, even a fourteen-year-old with behavioral problems.” And thus those stories end, but the people are ready to move on to their next chapter.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 19, 2012