Penelope Lively, “How It All Began”

Charlotte got mugged. Broke a hip. Had her purse nicked, but that was incidental. It was ending up flat on her back, then on crutches, that got the whole ball rolling.

Oh, isn’t it fun to go along for the ride when a really good writer fools around with story telling? Penelope Lively opens How It All Began with a James Gleick epigram about the Butterfly Effect, then puts the theory into practice. Because Charlotte, who is 77, can’t go back to her house alone until she can walk, she has to stay with her daughter Rose. On the day that Rose has to pick Charlotte up from the hospital, Rose’s boss, an elderly historian, has a lecture date in Manchester. His niece Marion has to escort him to Manchester in Rose’s place — and she ends up meeting a man who gives her an important decorating commission. On and on.

Contents of these shelves probably skew too lowbrow for Charlotte.

I suppose it’s an artificial structure, but why shouldn’t the artist show her hand shoving her little creations around? The last Lively novel I read, The Photograph, had a similarly showy premise and that worked beautifully, too. Normally I enjoy the immersive reading experience, where the writer stays discreetly behind the curtain, but of course that approach is artificial, too. And the “author” Lively, quite present, is as much invented as the “author” John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She occasionally speaks out, like this:

So that was the story. These have been the stories: of Charlotte, of Rose and Gerry, of Anton, of Jeremy and Stella, of Marion, of Henry, Mark, of all of them. The stories so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device…

You read this and you nod, un-huh, yup. You agree with the author, these stories will go on, the characters’ lives will separate, this was just the neat part where they fit together…. but while you’re imagining their lives continuing, you’re aware that Lively did, in fact, make them all up. The creator pointing to her creation, but maintaining the illusion — oh, she is really good.

The structure wouldn’t matter if we didn’t care about the characters and I have to dwell for a moment on Charlotte Rainsford, whom I love. Whom I know, actually — Charlotte the retired teacher, widowed and brave, self-sufficient, annoyed at the indignities of aging, easily amused, eager to help others. An adult literacy volunteer. Funny, unsentimental, and addicted to reading. See if this doesn’t sound familiar:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading…. She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience… Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge… 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 would starve without.

You, too, right?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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7 Responses to Penelope Lively, “How It All Began”

  1. Judy Fireman says:

    Once again, you’ve convinced me to read a book I had previously crossed off my list. What a kindly and enthusiastic reader/reviewer you are! Thanks!

  2. carolwallace says:

    Well, I hope my track record is OK when I’ve convinced you to read something! Also do bear in mind that I don’t blog about the books that just slowly sink to the bottom of the To Be Read pile, with the bookmarks perpetually stuck at page 127!

  3. Barbara says:

    I wonder if you have read Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. If not, I highly recommend it. I have also read The Photograph and Cleopatra’s Sister which were both quite good but not at the level of Moon Tiger which I think of as her masterpiece.

    • carolwallace says:

      Barbara, thanks for commenting: I have not read “Moon Tiger” but other friends of mine have raved about it, so it obviously needs to move into the To Be Read pile!

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth Taylor, “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” « Book Group of One

  5. Adrienne says:

    I just stumbled upon your website – what a delight. I just read this book, and I’ve decided that Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors. Have you read “Passing On” by any chance? It’s flawless. Keep up the good work!

    • carolwallace says:

      Adrienne, thank you for reminding me about “Passing On.” That opening scene has stuck in my mind for years but I couldn’t remember where it was from (could possibly have been Mollie Keane, I thought — similar access to the dark sensibility). I am going to reread it right away!

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