How It All Began – Penelope Lively

Charlotte is mugged & her handbag is stolen. This incident starts off a chain of events in her life & the lives of her family that leads to changes in all their lives. Charlotte is 77. Her hip was broken in the attack & she goes to stay with her daughter, Rose & Rose’s husband, Gerry while she recuperates. Rose works as personal assistant to a pompous, self-important retired academic, Henry, Lord Peters. Charlotte’s accident means that Rose can’t accompany Henry to a lecture he’s giving in Manchester so Henry’s niece, Marion, an interior designer, has to go with him. Marion had been planning to meet her lover, Jeremy, so she sends him a text explaining what’s happened. Jeremy’s wife, Stella, reads the message & throws Jeremy out of their house, threatening divorce. In Manchester, Henry’s lecture is a disaster as he finds he can’t remember the names of 18th century Prime Ministers & Marion meets a man who may be able to rescue her business from the consequences of the economic downturn as fewer people can afford to pay her to redesign their homes.

Charlotte chafes at the restrictions of living with Rose. She misses her Independence & is afraid that this is the beginning of the end of her living in her own home. Charlotte is a part-time literacy teacher, her students are adults who have never learnt to read or immigrants wanting to improve their English. She arranges to tutor Anton, an Eastern European migrant who is working on a building site until his English improves enough for him to apply for accountancy work. The lessons are a success as Charlotte hits on the idea of engaging Anton in stories to make the lessons more interesting. From Where the Wild Things Are to Pride & Prejudice, Anton’s confidence & facility with language improves. Rose takes Anton shopping for a gift for his mother & they begin a gentle, restrained relationship that moves from shopping to walks in the park & visits to the V & A.

I loved this book. I’ve read nearly all Penelope Lively’s books & I enjoy the way that time & history are always major themes of her fiction. Books & literature are also central & Charlotte, in particular, defines herself by her relationship to books. She decides to reread her favourite books while she convalesces to see if they are still the same books that influenced her on first reading. But, she finds The House of Mirth hard going, P G Wodehouse is all she can cope with, & it’s not until she recovers physically that she can begin to re-engage with literature. When she finds she can read & enjoy What Maisie Knew, she knows she’s on the road to recovery. The scene where she takes The Da Vinci Code to read at a hospital appointment (it’s all she can find at Rose’s house) is very funny as she analyses her own reaction to the book (she gives up after two pages) & how she feels other people perceive her when she is seen reading it. I felt that she lost some respect for her surgeon when he approved of her choice of reading.

Henry is a great comic character. His pompous pronouncements on prominent academics & politicians he’s known; his great plans for a six-part TV series on the 18th century to enlighten the masses; his delight in the nursery food that his housekeeper serves up; his conviction that My Memoirs will put the cat among the pigeons when they’re finally published. Henry is easy to laugh at but his clinging to the glorious past in the face of his current irrelevance is very touching. As he tells his niece, Marion, it was the Manchester lecture that threw them both off course,

‘We are both the victims of circumstance,’ said Henry. ‘I have the greatest mistrust of circumstance, whether in private life or public affairs. History is bedevilled by circumstance. Ah – here’s Corrie. Am I right in thinking it’s the rice pudding, Corrie? Excellent! Progress is forever skewed by circumstance – without the unforeseen event, an untimely death, the unpredicted circumstance, the course of history would be one of seamless advance. Without the Manchester circumstance, you & I would be carefree.’

This sums up the whole book, really. If Charlotte hadn’t been mugged, Rose would have gone to Manchester with Henry. She (unlike Marion) wouldn’t have forgotten to pick up his lecture notes & he wouldn’t have made a mess of the lecture, leading him to try to redeem what he saw as his ruined reputation with a foray into television. Charlotte’s lessons with Anton lead to he & Rose falling in love & becoming aware of new possibilities in life. Anton realises that he was right to move to London & he believes he will make a success of this new life. Rose is struck by the roads not taken in her comfortable, predictable life with Gerry, her children, now grown-up & her part-time job with Henry. These were the characters I really engaged with. Marion’s affair with Jeremy & his frantic efforts to reconcile with Stella while keeping Marion as well didn’t interest me as much.

This is such an enjoyable book, full of humour, especially Charlotte’s wry musings on aging & its horrors. I don’t read many contemporary authors but Penelope Lively has been a favourite since I read According to Mark over 20 years ago.

5 thoughts on “How It All Began – Penelope Lively

  1. Great review! I recently read this & enjoyed it very much, especially Charlotte. The first of her books I read was City of the Mind, and I'm still catching up with her older books.

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  2. Hi Lyn: Thanks for coming by my blog http://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/ I enjoyed your review of Lively's book. I don't often feel I figure out books as neatly as you did this one – but you're post helped me think about how I might do so in the future. I'm working on reading more carefully!

    Have you read Family Album by Lively? I read it and did a post about it. One of the things that was interesting was her use of time – providing a history of the family through different eyes and eras.

    All the best, “Ruby” aka Kathy

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  3. Kathy, Family Album is the one Lively I haven't read. I couldn't get into it which probably says more about me than the book. I've just reserved it at the library so I'll try again. I'll have to read your post as well! I agree with you about Lively's use of time, that's what I love in her books. She has such a sense of time whether it's in the life of a family or history more generally. Mystica, I hope you can get hold of this one, her books are terrific.

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