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Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Current Books How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Human choice versus fate.

In Lively’s twentieth novel, the mugging of an elderly woman triggers change in the lives of seven Londoners.

The idea of human choice versus fate lies at the core of fiction. Penelope Lively, certainly one of England’s most talented novelists, a writer whose works consistently combine narrative intensity and artistic control, has explored this notion in book after book. In her latest offering, the delightful How It All Began, a random assault and purse snatching capriciously shape the lives of seven Londoners.

Seventy-seven-year-old Charlotte Rainsford, a wise and gentle retired school teacher, suffers a broken hip when mugged on a London street. Because of her injury she is forced to move in with her daughter, Rose, and son-in-law, Gerry. Rose works as an assistant to Lord Henry Peters, an elderly academic. Because of the emergency with her mother, Rose cannot accompany Henry to Manchester where he is to speak at a conference. Instead, Henry’s niece, an interior designer named Marion, goes with her uncle. When Marion leaves a text message for her married lover, Jeremy, explaining her absence, Jeremy’s wife, Stella, intercepts the message and soon files for divorce.

While discontentedly residing at her daughter’s house, Charlotte carries on with her volunteer work – tutoring immigrants needing help with the English language. Anton, a charismatic pupil from an Eastern European country, begins coming to Rose’s home several afternoons a week for Charlotte’s instruction. As the plot unfolds Anton and Rose fall in love, a predicament that jeopardizes Rose and Gerry’s stable – but dull – marriage.

In addition to a skillfully constructed and thoroughly engaging plot, Lively’s novel has much to say about the role of chance in human affairs, the aging process, and the importance of memories.