A Short Wrap-Up and How It All Began


I am reading an old Penelope Lively book  – How It All Began – a comforting light read as I try to avoid the news and politics.   Charlotte, an older woman, falls after she is mugged and breaks her hip.  This one action triggers a series of events affecting her family and strangers she has never met, seven overall  – the butterfly effect rippling through lives.  Lively reminds the reader how little control we have over everything.

As the the catalyst for a cast of characters with a range of emotions and experiences as their lives are derailed, Charlotte rallies, recovers, and continues with a constructive life as Lively’s chapters consider those around her.  Charlotte’s fall requires her to move in with her daughter and son-in-law, Rose and Gerry, which leads to Rose taking time off from her job with an old historian, which leads to her boss asking his niece, Marion, to accompany him on a lecture trip, which leads to Marion’s leaving a message for her married lover, which leads his wife to discover the message and file for divorce.  And so it goes – a series of sometimes unfortunate events.

Charlotte is a retired English teacher, and her wise pronouncements sometimes seem worth noting for future reference.  As she convalesces, she notes how her circumstances have changed her reading habits to magazines and, horrors, pulp novels, until finally when she is able to read a Henry James novel again, she considers herself on the road to recovery.  I am not a fan of Henry James, but I did find her book, What Maisie Knew, in my library system – and maybe I’ll read it, but I doubt it.

Penelope Lively’s characters follow life’s chaos and uncertainties, a comfort to all of us living in that inevitable vein. Lively was a children’s book author before writing novels for adults and her first book, the children’s novel Astercote (1970) is about modern English villagers who fear a resurgence of the medieval plague – seems timely with the recent outbreak of a deadly virus from China. I’ve ordered the book from my library.


Other books I have been reading:

Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Famous for her Ruth Galloway mystery series, Elly Griffiths new book – Stranger Diaries – has none of her familiar characters but this stand alone mystery seemed familiar. I was sure I had read the book before and even knew the murderer, but I was wrong on both counts.  I was sure she was the murderer, but she was not.


The Key by Patricia Wentworth

A 1946 paperback with browned pages, some taped back together, turned out to be a great story.  When Michael Harsch is found dead (soon after he finally perfected his formula for the government) in the church behind a locked door with a key in his pocket, the mystery begins.  The inquest rules suicide but Miss Silver knows it is a murder, but who did it?  Despite its age, the mystery had a modern twist and held my attention throughout.

The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith

If you are a fan of the irreverent “Good Place” series, you will relish Hackwith’s Library of the Unwritten.  A librarian who was human but didn’t make it past the pearly gates, Claire oversees books not yet written; the library is in hell.  When one character escapes from his book to meet with his author on Earth, and another soul offers stolen pages from the devil’s Coda in exchange for living among the angels, the action starts, and never falters.  An exciting ride through different worlds where the devils are more fun and the angels tend to be judgmental and arrogant, the book swerves through lives and characters.  Noting the cautionary note to all procrastinating authors (me included) – “there’s nothing an unwritten book wants more than to be written” – I listened to the book on Audible and found myself speeding up the narrative to get to the next chapter.


Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? – A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx and Roz Chast

Skip the introduction and go immediately to the one-liners With Roz Chast’s illustrations for motherly advice you can use.  Here are a few:

  • Never do anything you can pay someone to do.
  • If you feel guilty about throwing out the leftovers, put them in the back of your refrigerator for five days and then throw them out.
  • When it comes to raising children, nothing beats bribery.
  • Resist the temptation to buy clothes on your skinniest days.


I am listening to a scary story on Audible – Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me.  Scary stories tend to keep my attention when listening, and this one started with a Mexican woman and her daughter in dire straits (before American Dirt was published).


How It All Began

When your life feels out of control, do you realize you never really had any control over it anyway?  Penelope Lively examines lives unwittingly affected by one random act in How It All Began.   When Charlotte, a retired English teacher living on her own, has her purse stolen by a young delinquent, the chain of events creates a ripple through the lives of her daughter and others Charlotte has never met.

Charlotte’s daughter, Rose, is a part-time secretary to Lord Henry Peters, an historian revered in his prime, who now spends his days shuffling through his old papers, imagining his memoirs as his last great contribution to society.  Unfortunately, no one is as interested in his past as he is.  Lively uses his pompous musings to remind the reader of her theme…

“…Cleopatra’s nose theory of history – the proposal that had the nose of Cleopatra been an inch longer the fortunes of Rome would have been different…{and} if this person had not existed, how differently could things have turned out…”

The story starts slowly and follows a Jane Gardam style (Lively even mentions Gardam as one of Charlotte’s favorites), with British reserve and language, lulling the reader into numbness – until a zinger creeps in.  You do have to stay alert or you will miss the nuance.  The plot is as cleverly designed as a mystery, but with the impact of reality – this could happen to you.

After Charlotte is knocked down by a purse-snatcher and breaks her hip, she is forced to recuperate at her daughter Rose’s home. When Charlotte is due to come to Rose’s home from the hospital, Rose asks to be excused from accompanying her employer, Lord Henry, to a university, where he has been asked to lecture.  His niece, Marion – an interior decorator who cannot be in a room without imagining how it should be – substitutes for Rose as his escort.

On her way to the lecture with her uncle, Marion leaves a text message for her lover, Jeremy, canceling a clandestine assignation.  Jeremy’s wife, Stella, opens the text,  throws Jerry out and files for divorce.  Meanwhile, at the university lecture, Marion meets George Harrington, a crooked trader who later adds her to his list of financial victims.

Henry seeks to exonerate his tarnished reputation (having forgotten important names during his lecture) by contacting a local television station; he plans to become the next Alistair Cooke.  More tangled webs clog the narrative as Mark, an opportunist, joins the cast of characters.

Meanwhile, Anton, a handsome immigrant who is working as a laborer until he can master enough English to return to his profession as an accountant, comes to Rose’s home so that Charlotte can continue her volunteer literacy work with him.  Rose’s marriage to dull Gerry has become complacent – they’ve lost the “spark,” with Gerry retreating to his woodshed to tinker.  The situation is ripe for romance when Rose helps Anton shop for a coat to send to his mother in the old country.

Are you keeping up?

Lively’s prose is witty and sharp; each character revealing generic flaws easily recognized, sometimes providing comic relief from the chance occurrences that are invisibly affecting their lives.   The unpredictable series of events continues the chain reaction, and throughout the chaos, Lively neatly inserts gems of wisdom and poignant moments…

“Progress is forever skewed by circumstance…”

“{Stories} always go forward…not like our life – the way we live, which is, very much {an} accident.” (You could get hit by a bus.)

“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 as essential foodstuff, who could starve without.”

In the end, Lively neatly ties up the lives of her characters – some improved, others not – but all affected by the catalyst, the fourteen year-old mugger, who proved Lively’s premise that chaos theory prevails in our lives –    “A butterfly in the Amazon forest flaps its wings and provokes a tornado in Texas…”


Read a Review of another Penelope Lively book: A Stitch in Time