“How It All Began” by Penelope Lively

January 2, 2012

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.” “How It All Began,” her 20th book of adult fiction, opens with an act of violence, rare in Lively’s work: Charlotte Rainsford, a retired literature teacher in her late 70s, is knocked to the pavement by an adolescent thug during a purse-snatching. The result isn’t just a broken hip but a chain reaction that ultimately touches nine people, some of whom don’t even know Charlotte.

Lively, author of “Family Album” and the Booker Prize-winning “Moon Tiger,” kicked off her 2003 novel, “The Photograph,” with a widower’s discovery of an incriminating snapshot of his late wife. She likened the picture to a stone “cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different.” In “How It All Began,” Charlotte’s mugging is the stone cast into the placid waters of her self-sufficient widowhood, stirring up ruminations on many of Lively’s touchstones: the indignities of old age; time, “no longer reliable”; the centrality of literature in a richly reflective life; and musings on the past, which is like a “comet tail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time.”

The novel’s purview extends well beyond Charlotte, however, to characters tangentially affected by her mugging. These encompass Charlotte’s middle-aged daughter, Rose, and her husband, Gerry Donovan, who move her into their home for her convalescence. There’s often an historian in Lively’s books; this time it’s Rose’s eminently mockable, pompous employer, Lord Henry Peters, sadly passe even in the world of 18th-century history on which he staked his career. The ripples spread all the way to his niece and even to her married lover’s family.

With a lovely, light touch, Lively briskly supplies necessary background information about her characters’ foibles. Rose’s husband is “interested in local government, carpentry, sacred music and a spot of coarse fishing.” Pretty dull, you think? Well, “Gerry is fine. Who’d want a husband who would run you ragged?” With that deft introduction, Lively prepares us for Rose’s growing attraction to Anton, the Eastern European emigrant who comes to the Donovans’ house for private lessons to improve his English reading skills, because Charlotte, temporarily homebound, is unable to teach her usual adult literacy class.

One of the challenges of interweaving multiple narrative strands is that some are liable to be far more compelling than others. With the exception of emotionally constipated Gerry and keen, sensitive Anton, Lively’s male characters are a pretty self-serving lot. The women are more engaging, though appropriately enough, Charlotte is the clear winner.

Among her many appealing virtues, Charlotte is a gifted teacher who understands the difference between illiteracy and “a failure to respond to literature”: The former is “crippling” and the latter is “merely a restriction.” In order to bring Anton more quickly up to speed so he can quit construction work and get back to accounting, for which he has been trained, she abandons standard language primers in favor of children’s literature. Anton responds with delight: “I am like child. . . . Child learn when he is interested. When he want to know what come next in the story.” Reading, being able to decipher “the black marks of another language,” effectively hands Anton “a passport to another country.”

We, too, avidly turn pages to find out what comes next in Lively’s story — what will come of Rose and Anton’s budding relationship; how thoroughly Lord Peters will be duped by his fawning new assistant; whether his niece will extricate herself from her financial straits and dead-end affair. Lively, who became a Dame of the British Empire last week, wraps it all up satisfyingly, despite her assertion that endings are artificial, since “time does not end.” But, as she reminds us in Charlotte’s lovely paean to reading, finding out what comes next is just part of the equation: Distraction, sustenance, enlightenment and instruction all factor in. With “How It All Began,” Lively has provided a golden passport that will sweep you through the border control of other people’s lives.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, the Christian Science Monitor and The Post.

How It All Began

By Penelope Lively

Viking. 229 pp. $26.95

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