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A-MakingItUpRobert Frost canonized the phrase; in these eight forays down roads not taken, British writer Penelope Lively brings the "what-if?" to life. She introduces each piece of fiction in this collection with a bit of the real-life context that inspired it. Though Lively does make clear that this collection is her life she’s portraying, she also insists that the stories, set in locations from the high seas off Cape Town to an archeological dig in the Egyptian desert, are to be treated as fiction. Less a tumble through regret than a purposeful stroll into the inconstancy of fate, the book uses storytelling to explore what might have happened if she or others had taken different paths. Oh, that we all had such tools at our disposal!
Viking. 224 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670034479

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Lively’s thesis is that contingency, ‘the great manipulator,’ makes real life unpredictable. Fiction writing, by contrast, gives the author total control. … Lively’s personal presence may not be a factor in these eight stories, but they all bear her personal imprint." Pauline Mayer

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"From the first sentence it is apparent that Lively has perfect control of every word and every thought in every story. … In very few words, she makes the point that fiction uses biography, translates it, but is not some roman á clef to the actual." Mickey Pearlman

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"And despite the author’s interweaving of fiction with autobiography, there’s an odd dissonance that lingers between the two. I found myself intrigued by the facts but not very interested in how they shaped the fiction—an insistent tugging, I suspect, of the reader’s unconscious, which wants very much not to know." Gail Caldwell

Guardian (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"There’s an undercurrent of regret to her tales, expressed in the little explanatory prefaces and afterwords that bracket each chapter. … [When] the conceit of Making It Up recedes almost to invisibility… the enjoyment is heightened accordingly." Carrie O’Grady

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"[W]hile a pleasure to read, it’s not as fully absorbing as her best work. Its effects linger in the head more than the heart." Thomas Maresca

Critical Summary

One feels certain that had Lively not insisted on framing these tales with the stories of their real-life origin, the critical reaction would have tilted higher. As it is, she’s delivered a hybrid collection—what she calls an "anti-memoir"—that confounds the issue. Most critics find the fiction perfectly engaging, as would befit a former winner of the Booker Prize (for Moon Tiger, 1987). But where curiosity or voyeuristic thirst might be slaked by the view into Lively’s studio, the overall effect is a diminishment of the fiction at hand. Though critics excuse a little fiction in memoirs, apparently the reverse is not true.