Friday, January 30, 2015

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

My  recent encounter with Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel, led me to a more in depth look at this clever, amusing, and skilled author.  She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, A member of PEN and the Society of Authors, and a receipt of several titles bestowed by the Queen, including Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.  She was born in Cairo, Egypt, but now lives in London.

Her 2011 novel, How it All Began, tells the story of Charlotte Rainsford, who is mugged in the first sentence.  This sets off a chain of consequences, which dramatically affect the lives of several people, some of whom do not even know Charlotte.  For example, her daughter Rose must give up a business trip with her employer, Lord Henry, to care for her mother who has been seriously injured.  Monica, Henry’s niece, takes the place of the efficient Rose, and promptly forgets the typed text of his speech for a conference.  Humiliation ensues.  Before Monica leaves, she texts her lover, Jeremy, and his wife reads the message.  Monica also meets a banker, named Harrington, and upon discussing her business as an interior designer, he hires her to redo a condo in London.  I am not really giving that much away, since all this happens in the first few pages.

Charlotte moves in with Rose and her husband, Gerry.  She has been teaching a class of immigrants to read and speak English, and one student presses Charlotte for lessons in her home, as he needs these skills for an upgrade in his employment.  She agrees, and he has a peculiar effect on Rose and Gerry.  Of course, Charlotte is anxious to get back on her own, and she constantly muses over her difficulties. 

Lively writes, “Old age is its own climate, she reflects.  Up against the wire, as you are, the proverbial bus is less of a concern: it is heading for you anyway.  The assault upon health is inevitable, rather than an unanticipated outrage.  You remain solipsistic – we are all of that – but the focus of worry is further from the self.  You worry about loved ones – that tiresome term, as bad as closure – you worry about the state of the nation, about sixteen-year-olds sticking knives into one another, about twenty-year-olds who can’t find a job, you worry about the absence of sparrows and the paucity of butterflies, about destruction of habitats, you worry about the decline of the language, about the books that are no longer read, about the people who don’t read” (194).

That sure fits me to a tee!  Interspersed are many moments of quiet humor, tenderness, and a dash of treachery.  Like many English writers, I always pick up a handful of interesting terms and idioms.  Charlotte has an obsession with books and reading.  On a visit to her doctor, she notes others in the waiting room, “…few others had a book.  People read magazines – their own, or the dog-eared ones supplied by the hospital – or they simply sat, staring at each other, or into space.  One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy pink raised lettering on the cover.  An elderly man had a battered hardback library book.  She wanted to know what it was but could not see – unforgiveable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime” (117).

I never go anywhere without a book, and I always try and sneak a peek at what others are reading.  How it All Began by Penelope Lively has convinced me to expand my collection of her works.  A most pleasant and enjoyable read.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 1/19/15

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