How It All Began, the new novel from Booker Prize Winner Penelope Lively can be read as a clever and fun romp, where we the reader get to play peeping tom, peeking into ordinary lives turned sideways by one incident. Charlotte, the eye of the storm, recovers from the incident in the home of Rose, her grown-up daughter, married to comfortable but zipped-up Gerry; Rose works for his lordship Henry, aged and dated historian who still believes quite firmly in his own importance and in his housekeeper's cooking (food as dated as he is); Marion, Henry's niece, interior designer and lover of another man's wife, is feeling the pain of the financial downturn while her lover, Jeremy, is feeling the pain of being found out, while cheated-upon wife Stella is feeling no pain at all, thanks to pills and a smooth-talking lawyer; rounding out the cast is Anton, economic immigrant and seeker of stories -- and what a lovely story Lively does provide.
But a closer read reveals that How It All Began is more than just a lovely and engaging story. It is a deeply incisive explanation of how we all begin, how we plod on, and how we approach the end -- we are always looking for a theory or an idea to bring cohesion to the chaos that is life, whether it be the career we choose (or reject) or the spouse we adore (or don't) or the label we flaunt ("free-spirit," "dependable," "respectable").
We, like Livelys' characters, are looking for somewhere solid to place our feet and hang on. But good luck trying, because life is like a pinball machine, albeit one that allows us moments of rest, reflection, even complacency, before sending us flying off again, in directions we never imagined. What can we do but hang on to what bits of ourselves that we can and hope for the best?
What is so marvelous about Lively's novel is how she allows us into each of her characters, exactly to the degree that their personalities would allow: we are treated generously by Charlotte, an expansive and empathetic woman (in part due to all the reading she has done all her life, absorbing characters and emotions and situations), and more gingerly by her daughter, who is a more reserved and less confident woman. Anton, as his comfort with English grows, becomes more available to us and provides an unexpected fount of insight, while Marion and Jeremy manage both to surprise and to confirm what first we saw in them. Henry is a hoot -- we have all known someone like Henry in our lives -- and Gerry proves to be more magnetic than first glance promised (although as a cat lover, he had me pretty early on). Lively uses her characters to underscore her theme of story. Those most willing to contribute are the ones with the largest story to tell, but even the smaller stories prove compelling.
Lively also presents questions of aging and role re-alignment in a wholly fresh and genuine way: Charlotte and Rose must negotiate the changes in their relationship, as Rose becomes more responsible for Charlotte and Charlotte chafes at the concern displayed by her daughter. At the same time, Charlotte is not relieved from worrying about Rose because worrying about children, no matter what their age, is a lifelong occupation. Henry, once so confident of his facts, finds names, dates, and, even worse, words themselves, becoming fuzzy. He understands it is the human condition but, damnit, he is no ordinary human! He protests against the breakdown of his faculties vehemently and then finds a soft way out.
Lively doesn't serve up a soft ending to her story but nor does she allow her characters too hard a landing after sending them whirling. And for that we are grateful, because we've come to like, even love, this band of travelers and we wish them Godspeed and a bit of happiness, before the next flip of fate.