Lively’s Latest a Study in Disaster and Discombobulation

"How It All Began" by Penelope Lively (Viking Adult)

Shimwoo Lee

"How It All Began" by Penelope Lively is available in bookstores now.

How far can the ramifications from one violent event reach? How many degrees of separate truly partition complete strangers? In her vibrant new novel “How It All Began,” Penelope Lively attempts to explore these questions through a “human version” of a highway pileup. The result is hardly as outwardly gory as a collision, but it is equally interconnected and upsetting.

The intersection of countless lives begins on the streets of London, where a delinquent opportunist mugs Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, and breaks her hip in the process. From there, Lively careens from one unfortunate situation to another and invites the reader to look on as nine different lives twist and turn in increasingly difficult situations. Lively believably constructs these stories by fully investing in the development of every character; despite the wide array of perspectives, she effectively highlights the individual personalities and struggles of the majority of people in the story. Yet at the same time, her writing inherently leads the reader to sympathize more with certain people than others—Charlotte, for example, is far more sympathetic than Henry, the arrogant historian. The reader thus gradually finds himself immersed in Charlotte’s struggle and subconsciously roots for her to succeed. It is here, in personal explorations, that the chaos of various experiences recedes and the characters themselves take center stage.

Lively chooses to open the novel with a quote from James Gleick’s “Chaos.” “The Butterfly Effect was the reason,” Gleik wrote. “Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features.” This quote is apt, for the sequence of events in the novel jumps unpredictably after the inital experience of Charlotte’s assault. Before long, the purse thief has indirectly caused a divorce, a romance, and a national scandal. The chaotic interactions between characters continue to escalate throughout the novel with no end to the chain reaction in sight. These unpredictable fallout effects serve as powerful reminders of the potentially vast repercussions of any event. Lively utilizes this provocative theme to make her characters question the results of their independent actions.

One surprising aspect of the novel is that the female characters are far more sympathetic than their male counterparts. Their initial appearances would not suggest their hidden strife, and Lively soon reveals that there is more to these placid women than a calm exterior. These aspects of the women contrast heavily with the one-dimensional male characters, who are haplessly disengaged from their role in the world’s complexity.

As the story progresses, intense interest in the characters’ struggles begins to recede. When the damage mounts, Lively’s sympathetic yet devastating character portrayals actually leave the reader yearning for all the fictional lives to return to normal. The travails of old age come to light especially through Charlotte and Henry: Charlotte grows more frail by the day due to her hip injury, and Henry—in one of his only sympathetic moments—must deal with memory loss as he tries to continue his illustrious academic career. Both worry about being left behind by a younger generation and approaching the end of their lives. As compelling as it is to skip from one disaster to another, the characters’ difficult situations make it increasingly hard to find entertainment in the mess of their lives. This choice between desire for chaos and engagement with the characters is disorienting. Lively thus effectively and intelligently turns the entire premise of the novel on its head. No longer is this a compilation of snapshots of various sad lives but a cathartic and upsetting character study in individual experiences. Her unrelenting prose continues to lead the reader across these short, separate, and devastating narratives.


“And what of the mugger?” Lively invites the reader to question at the novel’s end. “The catalyst, he or she who set everything off?” For the mugger—after Charlotte’s initial fateful encounter—slips away, never to appear again. Like a scientist observing her own experiment, Lively walks the reader through a laboratory of lives yet barely gives enough attention to each unfolding situation. She posits unanswered questions and, by the novel’s unresolved end, appears to marvel at her own carefully constructed chaos.

Though Lively may be able to move forward to the next scenario, her precise and effective emotional construction leaves the reader behind. She creates these characters to entrance and fascinate, but the abrupt departures from situations presume the reader can leave the characters behind as callously as the narrative does. This is frightening—but also, on an emotional level, a uniquely thought-provoking experience. We have seen their discord, and we reflect upon it. Lively has written a book whose ideas haunt long beyond the last page. That itself is notable achievement. Through upsetting snapshots of characters’ lives, Lively invites the reader to peer in. Her language and ability to manufacture a connection create a singularly compelling novel.


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