Wednesday, October 28, 2015

book review: How It All Began by Penelope Lively

The basics:  "When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances and strangers alike." -publisher

My thoughts: I find myself drawn to novels that address the unlikely connections between people, so the premise of How It All Began appealed to me immensely. Lively uses the premise to trace connections of various levels that all begin with a mugging. As each new character was introduced, I was fascinated to guess the connections. Promising as this premise was, I didn't find all of the characters particularly interesting. And even the interesting ones got bogged down in odd subplots at times.

Despite my questioning of some of Lively's storytelling choices, her observational prose frequently took my breath away:
"Time was, long ago, pain occasionally struck--toothache, ear infection, cricked neck--and one made a great fuss, affronted. For years now, pain has been a constant companion, cozily there in bed with one in the morning, keeping pace all day, coyly retreating perhaps for a while only to come romping back: here I am, remember me? Ah, old age. The twilight years--that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot--roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about. We all avert our eyes, and then--wham! you're in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.
Except that life goes on in parallel--real life, good life with all its gifts and graces. My species tulips out and blue tits on the bird feeder and a new book to look forward to this evening and Rose ringing up and a new David Attenborough wild life program on the telly. And the new baby of Jennifer next door. A baby always lifts the spirits." 
As I looked back over my favorite passages to write this review, I realized all are from Charlotte's point of view. This realization makes sense, as in retrospect, Charlotte was the most interesting character. Her insights into old age moved me, and her narrative never lost its way.

Favorite passage: "She’s odd these days--some Rose I don’t know has surfaced. But who knows their own child? You know bits--certain predictable reactions, a handful of familiar qualities. The rest is impenetrable. And quite right too. You give birth to them. You do not design them."

The verdict: Despite a strong premise and often exquisite writing, How It All Began wasn't executed well enough to make this a great read. It felt like an idea book, but it was executed as a character book. I just never felt as though any of the people other than Charlotte were real, so the conveniences of the story felt trite instead of clever. Still, Lively's observations on aging and her prose make this one worth reading.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2012
Source: purchased (at Parnassus Books!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How It All Began from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Penelope Lively's website.

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