How It All Began
Penelope Lively, 2012
Penguin Group USA
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.
A marriage unravels after an illicit love affair is revealed through an errant cell phone message; a posh yet financially strapped interior designer meets a business partner who might prove too good to be true; an old-guard historian tries to recapture his youthful vigor with an ill-conceived idea for a TV miniseries; and a middle-aged central European immigrant learns to speak English and reinvents his life with the assistance of some new friends.
Through a richly conceived and colorful cast of characters, Penelope Lively explores the powerful role of chance in people's lives and deftly illustrates how our paths can be altered irrevocably by someone we will never even meet. Brought to life in her hallmark graceful prose and full of keen insights into human nature, How It All Began is an engaging, contemporary tale that is sure to strike a chord with her legion of loyal fans as well as new readers.
A writer of rare wisdom, elegance, and humor, Lively is a consummate storyteller whose gifts are on full display in this masterful work. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—March 17, 1933
• Where—Cairo, Egypt
• Education—Oxford University
• Awards—Man Booker Prize; Carnegie
Medal; Whitbread Children's Book of
• Currently—lives London, England, UK
Penelope Lively was born in Cairo, Egypt but settled in England after the war and took a degree in history at St Anne's College, Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. She was married to the late Professor Jack Lively, has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren, and lives in Oxfordshire and London.
Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger. Her novels include Passing On, City of the Mind, Cleopatra's Sister, and Heat Wave.
Penelope Lively has also written radio and television scripts and has acted as presenter for a BBC Radio 4 program on children's literature. She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award. (From the publisher.)
As she's done in so many earlier books, Ms. Lively writes with an astringent blend of sympathy and detachment, emotional wisdom and satiric wit, and the result, here, is a Chekhovian tale that's entertaining, even funny on the surface, but ultimately melancholy in its awareness of time and lost opportunities, its characters' apprehension of mortality and the limits to their dreams.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
One of our most talented writers has written an elegant, witty work of fiction, deceptively simple, emotionally and intellectually penetrating, the kind of novel that brings a plot to satisfying closure but whose questions linger long afterward in the reader's mind.
Susan Cokal - New York Times Book Review
How It All Began,..focuses on the significance of stories, showing how lives touch and tangle with one another....This densely patterned novel feels at once clever and contrived. Each character seems the reflection of another, and several display a similar helplessness....This novel shows that if minor events wreak major effects, so can grand systems shape our own small ends—and our beginnings, too.
Abigail Deutsch - San Francisco Chronicle
The ever-productive, ever-graceful Penelope Lively returns to several pet themes—memory, history and the powerful role of happenstance in reshaping lives—with a fresh and charming novel that could well be called "Chance." ...Lively has provided a golden passport that will sweep you through the border control of other people's lives.
Heller McAlpin - Denver Post
In her latest title, the Booker Prize-winning author of Moon Tiger explores the far-reaching effect of happenstance, as individual circumstances shift, lives change, and the known is perceived in an altogether new light. The novel opens with the mugging of retired schoolteacher Charlotte Rainsford on a London street. Subsequently, a diverse cast of richly embroidered acquaintances and strangers find their lives irrevocably altered by this event, which many of them haven't even heard about. We see how the mugging affects Charlotte's daughter Rose, who works for a historian desperate to return to the limelight, and the spillover to his niece Marion, a cash-poor interior designer hunting for a business partner while carrying on an affair eventually revealed through a stray cell-phone call. Lively delivers her story about these intertwined lives with faultless dexterity, sly humor, keen insight, and deft economy. Verdict: Lively's 12th novel is a feel-good masterpiece that will delight faithful fans as well as those new to the work of this consummate storyteller. —Joyce Townsend, Pittsburg, CA
1. How It All Began is a book about reading and writing. What does reading give to Lively’s more literate characters? What does the absence of reading deny to the others?
2. How might Lively’s application of chaos theory to human relations conflict with the idea of a divinely ordered universe? What quarrels might a religious person have with Lively’s representation of events and their causes?
3. Given the randomness of events in the world that Lively describes, where seemingly wicked events can produce unforeseen happy results, how is it possible to distinguish good from evil?
4. Lively is fond of inserting historians into her fiction. What precisely does a character like Lord Henry contribute to the mood and structure of How It All Began?
5. What are the differences in the ways in which Charlotte and Lord Henry confront old age? Which approach should we admire more?
6. Charlotte’s mugger notwithstanding, the characters who come closest to true evil in How It All Began are unscrupulous professional men like the grasping solicitor Paul Newsome and the amoral financier George Harrington. What does Lively appear to think about the ethics of powerful people in the modern age?
7. Lively shows us two married couples whose shared lives are endangered by infidelities, either real or contemplated. How might these two subplots be compared and contrasted?
8. How It All Began is acutely conscious of the European debt crisis. However, the novel’s embattled characters tend to have either marketable skills or salable property that they can eventually fall back on. How might How It All Began have been different if Lively had chosen to make her characters’ circumstances more dire?
9. What does How It All Began suggest about the effect of television on the intellectual culture of Britain? Does Lord Henry, for all of his dry pomposity, deserve more of a soapbox than electronic media are prepared to give him?
What characteristics does Lively seem to most admire in a woman?
10. What traits does she evidently most despise in a man?
11. Does Rose make the right choice between Gerry and Anton? What are the arguments on either side of this question?
12. Near the end of How It All Began, Lively gives us a glimpse of the baby who lives next door to Charlotte. How does this brief insertion fit in thematically with the rest of the novel?
13, Charlotte observes that the modern novel has tried to free itself of messages but that they still seem to “creep in here and there” (69). What messages do you think have crept into How It All Began, and did Lively really try all that hard to keep them out?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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