How It All Began is Penelope Lively’s marvelous new book about the Chaos Theory or if it’s more understandable you (And me too!) could use the science behind If You Give A Mouse A Cookie as your template. No she hasn’t become James Gleick on us. How It All Began is a novel, a fabulous novel. The title is the kind that tells you the whole story and none of the story at the same time I always like that.
Lively’s chaos starts with Charlotte Rainsford’s mugging. When Charlotte gets mugged her hip is broken, when her hip is broken she has to stay with daughter Rose and family to recover. This chain of events stretches into other households unknown to Charlotte revealing among other things: an adulterous affair, the opportunity for an affair, career opportunities for advancement and failure.
The chapters alternate between all of the lives that Charlotte’s fall impacts. This technique has two potential pitfalls. In some authors’ hands this method often creates a short story collection rather than a cohesive novel. The more common problem with this strict back and forth between characters lives is the authors’ inability to build the same level of interest between each character. Inevitably you are spellbound by one or two characters and the rest? Ho-hum. Not to worry with Penelope Lively. This is a novel where each life is individual and a part of the whole AND you are happily invested in each character.
Each of lives in How It All Began is beset in some way by the problem of aging. As the most senior characters in the book Charlotte and Lord Peter have the most straight forward aging issues. They are edging their way toward the loss of independence and mental sharpness. The rest of the main characters in the novel are years younger than Charlotte and Peter but age has them all by the throat. The clock is ticking away and there are past, present and future choices to evaluate.
How It All Began, like Lively’s other novels, is a disarmingly gentle story keenly observed. These are characters with recognizable problems, good and bad habits who all live in the same world that you and I do. How does Penelope Lively make a novel so accessible so interesting? She imbues her characters and storylines with a complexity, a richness that despite their familiarity keeps them intriguing. All this is accomplished without sacrificing Livelys’ satirical wit. How It All Began was reading love for me from beginning to end.