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

Backseat Saints

I was taken in by the cover – curvy young woman in a red dress holding a long black braid in her hand.  I was taken in by the book flap – mother runs away; daughter follows. I was taken in by the sweet Southern references.  I was deceived.  This was not the light summer read I had expected.  Joshilyn Jackson exposes abuse and all its consequences on personal and family lives in Backseat Saints, and left me feeling a little raw after reading it.

After her mother leaves, when Rose was eight years old, Rose becomes the substitute target for her father’s beatings.  She grows up feisty, able to shoot a gun, and looking for love in all the wrong places.  After running away at eighteen, and suffering through a series of bad men, she marries Thom, a jealous Texan, who continues the battering and mental abuse she has come to expect.

Jackson exposes the secret side of abuse through the mental negotiations that Rose has with herself – her sweet submissive Southern belle vs. her tough Alabama street-wise handler.  The saints offer another perspective.  Growing up Catholic, Rose has a litany of saints connected to various missions: pray to St. Bartholomew for sports, St. Rita for marriage, St. Roch for dogs  – a saint for every challenge.  The saints, though not very effective, appear beside her in moments of extreme stress to offer support.

After a dire warning from a gypsy in an airport terminal, Rose decides to kill her husband.  She shoots her dog by mistake instead; he survives  – sad but the strange comic relief that Jackson offers throughout the story.  Rose’s wry comments and her quick wit sprinkle the horror.  Eventually, after an almost fatal beating that lands her in the hospital, Rose plans her escape.

But running away from an abusive, vindictive husband is not easy, and Jackson focuses on abused women’s lack of money and means to get away as well as the vacillating emotions that draw them back again and again.  Even the saints can’t help Rose, and all seems lost – until she decides to find her mother.

Rose’s pilgrimage for peace has her looking for her high school boyfriend and her father in a desperate attempt for protection from her husband.  When she is reunited with her mother, it would seem a relief, but Jackson has more to say – this time on mother/daughter relationships.

The ending is a surprise, so I will not spoil it for you.  I read Backseat Saints quickly, happy to get to the end.  One of those books that’s good for you to read; my rating ✓✓✓.
But now I really need some summer fluff to read.

Rating System:

  • ✓✓✓✓✓ -Don’t miss it!  Hope you like it as much as I did.

  • ✓✓✓✓ – You should read it (my opinion anyway)
  • ✓✓✓ – Worth a try – at least to the first 50 pages

  • ✓✓ –  You might need some chocolate to get you through

  • – Watch TV instead