If Charlotte was at home, her day would have been filled…None of that now, except the reading. She has a stack of books from home with her, and has commissioned Rose to get a new paperback she wants. So the most important thing is still available, though somehow reading was more savored when kept for those special periods in the day. When you can do it any old time it is less cherished. And her concentration is all askew: the medications, the nagging hip.
Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not she has read to find out what is that other people experience that she is missing…
…Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations, and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has an effect on who she is and how she thinks. 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 could starve without. (pgs. 34-35)
How it All Began is Penelope Lively’s 20th work of fiction for adults – she also has a sizable number of children’s fiction in her body of work. Three of her previous books have been short listed for The Booker Prize which she won in 1987 for Moon Tiger. I have a few of her books and really enjoy her as a writer. Her latest novel is Lively’s take on the Butterfly Effect, if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, does that lead to a storm in the Northern Hemisphere? How does the consequences of a simple action effect, not only the person involved in the action, but others around him or her as well? The ripple effect of a single action, seemingly inconsequential, which leads to major changes in the lives of seven people.
Charlotte is an elderly widow, a former English teacher who now volunteers with illiterate adults. At the beginning she is accosted by a petty thief and breaks her hip landing in the hospital and then in the home of her daughter Rose and her husband Gerry. From this event, the ripples lead out: a marriage is threatened by a text message read by the wrong person; an elderly historian tries to capture lost prominence with hair-brained TV scheme; an struggling interior decorator finds a dream client in the midst of the recession; and a new immigrant reinvents his life.
For all the randomness stressed in the book, Lively is also taking about the past, its effect on us as people, and how we change as we travel through our present into the future, or more precisely, how the person we were in the past no longer matches the person we are now because not only have we changed, but new circumstances require new interpretations. Having Henry (the historian specializing in the 18th century) as a character highlights this for as Henry muses on the past and his profession, the words can be interpreted more broadly: “History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion.” And this is reinforced by Charlotte’s thoughts on books and reading – how our experience in reading an author or a book changes with our own circumstances, “Charlotte was quarreling with Henry James. That is to say, she was find James’s sentence constructions a bit too much, on a warm afternoon in the garden. Get to the point, man – stop piling on another phrase, another qualification, another flourish. Yes I know it is unique, admired, an intriguing labyrinthine process, but today I am not receptive.” (pg. 168)
Each character inhabiting a ripple, is well drawn out with their personality; their motivations, are well spelled out, sometimes too well as there is a small amount of repetition in the book. My biggest complaint is that the randomness (outside of the mugging) didn’t seem all that random. The characters are all connected in fairly solid ways. Perhaps not connected to everyone in the story, but at least connected to one other person. But in the big scheme of things, this proved a minor detail. It has struck me that perhaps Lively is saying that we are all connected in our randomness so perhaps my quibbling about degrees of connection/separation was a distraction I should have pushed to the side sooner than I did.
Lively is the master of painting personality writing such sentences as, “Gerry was fifty-four, and seems to have been that since he was twenty-seven, when he and Rose were married. He was on of those young who are not, in whom you spot already the older self, peering out, waiting to take over. (pg. 33) The characters that are not necessarily pleasant people are still shown with sympathy and understanding and the characters we find ourselves rooting for also have a veneer of complexity. I found myself rooting for Marion, the interior decorator, and rolling my eyes at the immaturity of her lover who doesn’t want a divorce from his wife. I liked Gerry, the silent husband of Rose. Even Henry, in all his egotism and pomposity was funny to read about and you felt sorry for his unfortunate fading into the woodwork of historic thought as new theories and younger historians take his place.
I felt like you could tell what is important to Lively these days – growing old, the place that reading and books hold in our lives, the ambiguity of life – our need for an ending even if that ending is open to interpretation. Charlotte’s musing on aging had a ring of truth to it – my mother is the same age as the character and her remarks on growing old are not identical to Charlotte’s, they do have the same tone. The passages on reading will sound similar to any reader as they are universal in concept. And how can you not like an author that writes passages like this:
The present is less inviting, as material for reflection. The present is a matter of nagging concerns, of hour-to-hour negotiations. Should she or should she not take a painkiller? Check again that date for the next clinic appointment. Will Rose be cross if she suggests doing something useful, such as a bit of ironing? When will she be able to go home? And then, like sudden bursts of sunlight, there arrive, as ever, those glad moments: the sliver sliver of a new moon against the evening sky, lilac – snuffed as she shuffles to the gate, the sound of the girl next door practicing the piano. (pg. 127)
Penelope Lively once again brings universal concepts to the forefront by describing the everyday lives of ordinary people. While she writes with a light hand, you will find yourself thinking about passages long after you have turned the page. And if you haven’t read her, I urge you to start.