How It All Began: A Novel

Paperback | November 27, 2012

byPenelope Lively

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A vibrant new novel from Penelope Livelya wry, wise story about the surprising ways lives intersect

Look out for Penelope Lively’s new book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.

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.

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From the Publisher

A vibrant new novel from Penelope Lively—a wry, wise story about the surprising ways lives intersectLook out for Penelope Lively’s new book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances...

Penelope Lively was born and raised in Egypt, before moving to England for boarding school and later reading Modern History at St Anne's College, Oxford. Lively is the author of many children's books and adult novels, including Family Album, The Photograph, and Moon Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize. She was awarded an OBE in 1989 ...

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Moon Tiger
Moon Tiger

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The Purple Swamp Hen And Other Stories
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Format:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 7.78 × 5.08 × 0.65 inPublished:November 27, 2012Publisher:Penguin BooksLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143122649

ISBN - 13:9780143122647

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INTRODUCTION“Our life,” says Anton, an Eastern European immigrant to contemporary London in Penelope Lively’s How It All Began, “is . . . very much accident” (67 in the finished book).Anton’s observation might serve as an epigraph for Lively’s novel, a richly conceived and exquisitely written book that is all about the haphazardness—and the tiny miracles—of unintended consequences. The dominoes begin to fall when seventy–seven –year –old Charlotte Rainsford is knocked to the pavement by a purse–snatching hoodlum. The independent Charlotte reluctantly moves in with her daughter, Rose, and her husband to convalesce. Rose, as a result, misses some days of work as the personal assistant of retired historian Lord Henry Peters, and her replacement fails to bring his lordship’s notes with her to an important lecture. As confusion mounts, the temp assistant sends an indiscreet text message to her lover, which, falling into his wife’s hands, instantly becomes the smoking gun of his infidelity. Before the ensuing chains of events have run their course, people who have never met Charlotte’s attacker will face financial ruin. Others will reach awkwardly for fame and redemption. Still others will fall in and out of love. They will lose their spouses and strive desperately to win them back—and all because of a random crime on a city sidewalk.Charlotte’s misfortune brings together an extraordinary assortment of characters: the self–absorbed but lovable Lord Henry, who is convinced that his dusty, arcane scholarship on eighteenth–century British politics is just the thing for a hit television series; his niece Marion, whose acquaintance with go–getter financier George Harrington might either be the biggest break of her career or its most unqualified disaster; Jeremy Dalton, a seat–of–his–pants antiques dealer who loves his neurotic wife, Stella, but just might love Marion a trifle more; and Anton, whose dedicated efforts to decipher the English language lead him into a series of private reading lessons with Charlotte—and into some private meetings of a very different kind with Charlotte’s married daughter, Rose. And at the center of it all is Charlotte herself, struggling with the aches and pains of growing older as she rereads her favorite classic novels, tries to reassert her independence, and muses deeply on life in a world where happenstance and irrational desire are often stronger forces than reason and persistence.A genial but insightful look at the gentle chaos that we call life, How It All Began is also a story about storytelling: how we use narratives to create meaning, to comfort one another, and to marshal the courage and humor we need to face yet another nonsensical day. Delightfully sympathetic and nuanced in the treatment of its characters but keenly serious in its understanding of human relationships and the crazy accidents that cause them to form, change, and potentially dissolve,How It All Began is sure to rank as one of Dame Penelope Lively’s most brilliant novels to date. ABOUT PENELOPE LIVELY Born Penelope Low in Cairo in 1933, Dame Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt before being sent to English boarding school at the age of twelve. She read modern history at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She was married in 1957 to the academician Jack Lively. She achieved success as an author, initially as a writer of children’s fiction. She was awarded the Carnegie Medal for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) and the Whitbread Award for A Stitch in Time (1976). After she turned to adult fiction, Lively’s novels The Road to Lichfield and According to Mark (1984) were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an honor that she won in 1987 with her novel Moon Tiger. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, she was recently elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Dame Penelope lives in North London. A CONVERSATION WITH PENELOPE LIVELYQ. We would like to congratulate you on your recently being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. What were your thoughts on receiving this extraordinary honor?Our Honors system must seem somewhat arcane to you in the U.S., but it’s been around for a long time (along with the now–defunct term “British Empire”) and we’re kind of used to it! I’m startled to be a Dame—my (grown–up) granddaughters are vastly amused but say I have to get more Dame–like, so I’m working on that.Q. How It All Began takes as its premise the idea that chaos theory can be applied to social relations. How did you come to be interested in chaos theory as the conceptual mainspring for a novel?As a nonscientist, I’ve always enjoyed reading the kind of accessible science now written for people like me, and I was fascinated by the concept of chaos theory when first I heard of it. I won’t pretend that I fully—or even partly—understand the physics, but I have come to see it as a metaphor, and that interpretation eventually turned into a novel.Q. Your novel executes a lovely pas de deux between the chaos of life and the ordering power of narrative: events happen at random, but storytellers give them coherence and meaning. Yet if we take the thrust of your argument, the order imposed is always a kind of falsehood, and the very idea of “story” is a species of prevarication. Any thoughts?That’s an interesting—and challenging—question! Well, yes, there’s an inherent ambiguity around the idea of meaning and coherence in story, which is trying to impose order on life as lived, where order there is not. I think the storyteller is not so much trying to create an ideal, as play around with “what if,” propose outcomes that may seem to have coherence, or to be inevitable. Perhaps story is some kind of distorted mirror image of life. But in the last resort I think it is an expression of a basic human drive—we have always told stories, not necessarily to supply meanings, but just because humankind seems to need them.Q. We found it interesting that you decided to keep Charlotte’s mugger, the “catalyst” for all that ensues in the novel, almost completely in the shadows. Charlotte has no interest at all in knowing about him, and he receives our full attention only in a closing paragraph. Was there any point in the development of How It All Began when the mugger played a larger role? Why did you decide to keep him more or less offstage?I remember that at some point in writing the novel I thought about bringing the mugger on, giving him/her a role—and almost immediately knew that to be the wrong thing to do. No, no. The catalyst, simply and solely.Q. Lord Henry Peters is a marvelous piece of literary alchemy. He’s pretty clearly a self–important bore to almost everyone who knows him, and it’s hard to imagine too many people sitting through his dreamed–of memoir. And yet your account of him is invested with a life and interest that he is unable to impart to his own account of himself. How did you do it?In any novel, I find, there are characters who obligingly jump fully fledged onto the page and others who lurk in the shadows. Henry Peters was of the first order—but how or why that happens I really don’t know! If I did, writing fiction would be much easier than it is. Anyway, he was most obliging, and I enjoyed creating him. I’ve known one or two of his kind; I never use “real” people as a character—any character has to be custom–made for a book—but one uses an arm or a leg.Q. We loved the contrast between the novel’s two marriages in crisis. Jeremy Dalton scrambles like mad to rescue his marriage to Stella, whereas Gerry never has any idea that he and Rose are tiptoeing along the edge of the abyss. Do you enjoy creating such subtle contrasts and parallels in your work?Of the two marriages in the novel, I don’t think that that of Rose and Gerry was ever in mortal danger—they had rubbed along, and will continue to do so, which is after all the stuff of many marriages. Jeremy and Stella are more precarious because of Jeremy’s innate fecklessness—goodness knows what will happen to them. I don’t think I particularly intended a contrast, but if there is one, then that is not a bad thing.Q. It seems to us that one of the points that make moralizing about How It All Began so difficult is that seemingly ill events have positive outcomes: to take just one instance, if Charlotte doesn’t get mugged, Anton never discovers Jane Austen. Might one read How It All Began as hinting that we are unable to distinguish good from evil, even when it almost literally hits us in the face?Ah, now that of course is what happens all the time in all of our chaos–directed lives, and prompts all the clichés to do with swings and roundabouts, an ill wind, etc. Most of us spend a good deal of time trying to tease out the positive in this way, which may be a version of T. S. Eliot’s “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”Q. Many readers are likely to relish your wry dismissal of The Da Vinci Code. Some others, who rather fancy Dan Brown, may wonder why you chose to rap his knuckles. What are your thoughts on that thing known as the contemporary bestseller, and what do you think we have done to deserve it?I’m sure Dan Brown can withstand Charlotte’s dismissal. Actually, I think bestsellers are interesting because they say more about their times than their own merits, or absence of merit. They seem to define some kind of need—for derring–do adventure, or Da Vinci code hocus–pocus, or whatever. But of course so much depends on hype—the deliberate creation of a bestseller. What is satisfying is the occasional arrival of the word–of–mouth bestseller of real worth—when readers themselves have voted.Q. In our current moment, as the baby boomers start picking up their first retirement checks, it’s becoming more and more common for novels to address the challenges of aging. Charlotte Rainsford, in fact, is almost your precise contemporary. How much of your own experience of growing more mature is reflected in her character?I certainly couldn’t have written Charlotte as a character—or not as a convincing one—at any other time of my life. One of the few advantages of being an old writer is that you have been there—you know what it was to be in your forties, fifties. . . . When you are younger, of course you want to write of older people and have to stick your neck out, use empathy, imagination, observation. But experience trumps all.Q. The eighteenth century turns up quite a lot in How It All Began, whether in Lord Henry’s work or in a copy of Johnson’sRasselas in an Eritrean driver’s minicab. What is the eighteenth–century subtext of your novel meant to signify?I don’t think the eighteenth century is in any way a subtext. Henry Peters’s field of study was carefully chosen—the sort of historical field that a historian interested only in politics and personalities would choose. And the Rasselas–reading minicab driver is fished from my own life—I couldn’t make that up! I met the driver one evening a few years ago and had a fascinating conversation.Q. Charlotte once took up reading Saul Bellow to discover “how it is to be American” (35). What words of caution or encouragement do you have for an American reading your work to learn how it is to be English?I’ve long felt that the way to learn about a culture or a time is to read its fiction. If I want to know what nineteenth–century France or England was like I go to the novelists—equally, the contemporary world. I didn’t cross the Atlantic first until I was in my forties, but I had read lots of American literature, both past and contemporary. There was a resonance, from the moment I stepped off the plane. I’m English, and write out of a particular culture and experience, but probably with echoes of others, which stem from a lifetime of reading; I’m not exclusively English, but the sort of hybrid that anyone is who has spent a lot of time absorbing other ways of living and thinking.Q. You observe that Lord Henry enjoys rereading his own work. Do you?I dislike rereading my own work and never do unless I have to look something up.Q. What is your concept of a wonderful reader?I think a wonderful reader—the ideal reader—is anyone who reads widely, experimentally, critically but not judgmentally, who is prepared to try anything, and for whom reading is central to life, who couldn’t do without it. The last two apply to me—and some of the rest, though I know I am guilty of being judgmental sometimes, and I can’t try science fiction anymore, I’m afraid. But I don’t think “wonderful” is quite the right word—I’d rather just have “committed.” That’s what I am, and I think it’s what most members of reading groups are, or they wouldn’t be in one. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSHow 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?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?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?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?What are the differences in the ways in which Charlotte and Lord Henry confront old age? Which approach should we admire more?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?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?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 Beganhave been different if Lively had chosen to make her characters’ circumstances more dire?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?What traits does she evidently most despise in a man?Does Rose make the right choice between Gerry and Anton? What are the arguments on either side of this question?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?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?

Editorial Reviews

“Here, 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.” —The New York Times Book Review   “In this mischievous novel, Lively traces the genealogy of randomness that messes up the lives of strangers. . . . Moving skillfully between streams-of-consciousness and a wry omniscient voice, Lively investigates her characters’ motives and afterthoughts with precision and tenderness.” —The New Yorker   “How It All Began is another virtuoso performance. I found it even more delightful a second time through, appreciating once more the elegance of Lively’s design, the grace notes of thematic underpinning shining through. . . . In her own late 70s now, with a legion of regular readers and newcomers with every book, Lively continues to surprise and illuminate, writing to ever more dazzling effect.” —The Boston Globe   “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. . . . She has provided a golden passport that will sweep you through the border control of other people’s lives.” —The Washington Post   “Lively’s novel is skillfully constructed, with a thoroughly engaging plot. It also has much to say about the role of chance in human affairs, the aging process and the importance of memories.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune  “Lively is a consummate storyteller who once again illuminates the ways that the vagaries of chance bring powerful alteration to the ordinary plans of ordinary people. . . . The characters in this novel are, each and all, well drawn and fully conceived. . . . Everyone in this elegantly told tale is connected by chance and the power of story.” —The Seattle Times “Startling and soothing, uncommonly paced, this is a book to treasure. . . . To a person, each character is wholly developed, and the trajectory of all the chaotically intersecting lives moves forward. Ms. Lively attends to these with great care, and with every detail and keenly observed moment, the reader accrues more information about where it all leads. There are consequences to missteps and random acts. . . . Three cheers for this gorgeous writing.” —The Washington Times   “In this densely patterned novel . . . Lively observes how the ‘strange notional movements’ of world economies can ‘wreck individual lives.’ This novel shows that if minor events wreak major effects, so can grand systems shape our own small ends—and our beginnings, too.”   —San Francisco Chronicle “Wonderful . . . British treasure Penelope Lively examines the effects of a seemingly random crime on a group of London acquaintances and strangers.” —Marie Claire  “Lives intersect in unexpected and comical ways in this breezy, engrossing novel. . . . Lively infuses her motley cast of characters with a blend of pathos and sharp satire, and though How It All Began is light fare, this deftly paced novel remains compulsively readable throughout.” —Entertainment Weekly   “This delightful, absorbing novel relies on a sophisticated and skillfully realized structure to introduce and then follow its endearingly ordinary characters. . . . The interdependency of the characters’ lives, which they remain largely unaware of, builds intriguing momentum, and the pace quickens as the novel develops. Throughout, prolific Booker Prize–winning author Lively illustrates her knack for charming familiarity and just the right dash of surprise.” —Publishers Weekly   “The ruling vision of master British novelist Lively’s latest delectably tart and agile novel is the Butterfly Effect, which stipulates that ‘a very small perturbation’ can radically alter the course of events. . . . Throughout this brilliantly choreographed and surreptitiously poignant chain-reaction comedy of chance and change, Lively shrewdly elucidates the nature of history, the tunnel-visioning of pain and age, and the abiding illumination of reading, which so profoundly nourishes the mind and spirit.” —Booklist (starred review)   “Explores the far-reaching effect of happenstance, as individual circumstances shift, lives change, and the known is perceived in an altogether new light. . . . Lively delivers her story about these intertwined lives with faultless dexterity, sly humor, keen insight, and deft economy . . . A feel-good masterpiece that will delight faithful fans as well as those new to the work of this consummate storyteller.” —Library Journal (starred review)  “More stylish than many writers half her age . . . Lively knows a thing of two about storytelling. Her veteran understanding of the function of narrative in our lives is impressive but lightly worn. . . . Her candour is refreshing, and reminds us that you don’t have to lie to yourself to live life finely until the very end.” —The Times (London)   “Lively remains a sublime storyteller. . . . She has us riveted with curiosity as to what will happen next, yet also keeps us consistently aware of the nature of the illusion.” —The Guardian