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Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
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A-How-It-All-BeganBritish author Penelope Lively has written more than 20 novels, including Consequences (HHHJ Sept/Oct 2007), The Photograph (2003), and the Booker Prize–winning Moon Tiger (1987). How It All Began explores the many ways that society connects us--and pulls us apart. Also reviewed: Making It Up (HHHJ Jan/Feb 2006) and Family Album (HHHJ Mar/Apr 2010).

The Story: When retired English teacher Charlotte Rainsford, 77, is accosted by a 14-year-old mugger and breaks her hip, her convalescence sets in motion a chain of events that will have lasting effects on those around her: her daughter and son-in-law, who will be forced to reassess their lifeless marriage; an aging historian intent on reinvigorating his career; a struggling interior designer and her convenient lover; and an immigrant learning language and life. Riffing on James Gleick's now famous "butterfly effect," the novel exults in revealing events "so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day."
Viking. 240 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670023448

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 4 of 5 Stars"This is a fun novel that plays with traditional literary concepts, such as narrative, which is, of course, the opposite of chaos. ... This is a smart, well-written literary novel that would be fun to analyze in a book club, but Lively also knows what her characters know: that what keeps readers turning the pages is a good story, and at its heart, How It All Began is just that." Catherine Mallette

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars"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." Katherine Bailey

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"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." Susann Cokal

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars"British novelist Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger) 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." Valerie Ryan

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"With a lovely, light touch, Lively briskly supplies necessary background information about her characters' foibles. ... With How It All Began, Lively has provided a golden passport that will sweep you through the border control of other people's lives." Heller McAlpin

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"This densely patterned novel feels at once clever and contrived. ... In overemphasizing the role of chance, Lively draws our attention to a weakness of the novel: One of its governing notions--that a small event can trigger large, unforeseen consequences--is already quite familiar, to humans and butterflies alike." Abigail Deutsch

Critical Summary

Over four decades, Penelope Lively has garnered a reputation, along with contemporaries A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, as a keen observer of society and an empathetic chronicler of modern life. How It All Began shows Lively at the top of her form, offering readers a story not only told, but told about, an intimate peek into her heartfelt world. With the deft touch of a pro, Lively delivers a compact novel that still manages to draw each character with satisfying depth. Think of it as a slightly more genteel--though no less engaging for all that--British version of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels.