Book Reviews

Lives In A Spin : How It All Began by Penelope Lively

How It All Began  is an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event on a fine April day. It’s a human version of the chaos theory in which a butterfly flapping its wings can result in large differences in weather conditions.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

The event with which How It All Began opens is considerably more physical and violent than a butterfly movement.

The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek. She is laid out there, prone.

The woman on the pavement is Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s, who’s just been mugged and left with a broken hip. As a consequence, she has to move in with daughter Rose and son-in-law Gerry.

Which means Rose cannot accompany her employer, retired history professor Lord Henry Peters, to his lecture engagement in Manchester. His niece Marion is brought in as a substitute. Which means she can’t meet up with her lover Jeremy. She sends him a text message which his wife unfortunately discovers. Which means she begins to sue for divorce.

Thus have various lives collided, the human version of a motorway shunt, and the rogue white van that slammed on the brakes is miles away, offstage, impervious.

Lives Caught In A Snowball

The domino effect set in train by the mugging doesn’t end there however. Penelope Lively uses those events as a set up for even more unintended consequences.

And so, during Marion’s unexpected trip to Manchester, she meets a potentially lucrative new client for her ailing interior design business. Not until it’s too late does she realise George Harrington is too good to be true.

In another thread, Rose meets Anton, an immigrant from Central Europe who comes to the house for English lessons with her mother. The sensitive, intelligent man begins to seem a far more attractive proposition than Rose’s steady but dull husband.

In the hands of a less experienced novelist, this plot could end up as tangle of implausible coincidences and forced connections. But Penelope Lively is a gifted storyteller more than capable of corralling all these disparate elements into a cohesive narrative about memory and lost opportunities.

Wicked Humour

It might not sound as if this is fertile ground for humour but How It All Began is contains some wickedly funny characters and acerbic authorial interventions. Lively is at her most delightful when she is pricking the bubble of pomposity and pretentiousness whether in the world of academia, television or design.

Interior designers like Marion and Jeremy come in for considerable mockery. She’s a woman who can’t stand in a room without mentally re-designing it, often using recycled items “a cargo of interior adornments forever on the move, filtering from one mansion flat or bijou Chelsea terrace house to another”.

Quite the funniest character is the ageing academic Lord Peters. Once he consorted with eminent “men of letters” and Prime Ministers sought his advice. But now this historian with “a soft spot for what is known as the Cleopatra’s nose theory of history”, is feeling rather neglected. Editors are not, it seems, desperate to hear his thoughts on the eighteenth century.

In a bid to re-establish his reputation he decides he’s the perfect person to front a television series. Think David Starkey or Simon Schama but in a tweed suit.

After a day’s filming it doesn’t seem like such a great idea. Henry is knackered from being dragged from location to location in search of background “colour”:

His knee hurt. His feet hurt. He had a headache. … He eyed the wretched script once more – set out in large font and triple spacing in deference to his eyesight. He thought of those young chaps whistling up hillsides while holding forth about the Middle Ages, and wished them luck; he knew now why he had settled for a life of desk-bound scholarships.

Melancholy Blended With Humour

That tinge of sadness and humour is what I enjoyed most about this book. How It All Began is about people who once had dreams and ambitions. Through the snowball triggered by Charlotte’s accidents, they become more aware of the limits to those dreams, of lost opportunities and their mortality.

Charlotte, in particular comes to recognise the frailties of age. Her accident transforms her life. Pre-accident, she was an independent widow with a solid group of friends and stints as a literacy volunteer. Now she is housebound, helpless and bored. Even her longtime passion for books does not sustain her.

Once books were a “necessary fix”, a form of distraction as well as sustenance. She read to be informed and enlightened about the world; to “find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing. ” She even enjoyed Henry James though now she finds him long winded and difficult to penetrate.

It’s not just this one author, it’s the pleasure generally that has dimmed. As she reflects:

… somehow reading was more savoured when kept for those special periods in the day. When you can do it any old time, it is less cherished.

With little to fill her day, her mind turns to thoughts of the past, to her time as a teacher and to her happy years with her husband. But suddenly all that disappeared and she is where she is now, in her “twilight years”, in pain and frustrated by her lack of independence. Yet, she reminds herself

… life goes on in parallel — real life, good life with all its gifts and graces,” like new tulips and the birds at the bird feeder.

Charlotte is a fascinating character and one of the stars of this novel. Though having said that I didn’t think there were any dud characters at all. However horrible some of the individuals were, I still felt rooted in their lives. It made this book utterly compelling and incredibly difficult to put down.

Usually when I finish a book I’ve loved, I don’t want it to end, I want to feel that these characters continue to have a life even though I may not know what path it takes. Cleverly Penelope Lively gives us that sense of a continuance. Just as chaos theory does not assume any conclusions, says the narrator, neither will the stories of these individuals reach an end. They just “spin away from each other, each on its own course.”

How It All Began by Penelope Lively : Fast Facts

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is an award-winning British author of fiction for adults and children. Born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933 she moved to England as a young girl.

Her first novel for adults The Road to Lichfield was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977. She went on to win prize with Moon Tiger in 1987. She is also the winner of the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books with The Ghost of Thomas Kempe in 1973

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of PEN and a former Chairman of The Society of Authors. She was awarded an OBE in 1989, a CBE in 2001 and made a Dame in 2012. 

How It All Began was published in November 2011. I picked up a copy at a knock down price in a library sale – it’s signed by the author but unfortunately has a “withdrawn from stock” stamp underneath. It’s only the second novel by Lively that I’ve read which is a surprise because I loved Moon Tiger (it’s one of my favourite Booker Prize winners).


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

15 thoughts on “Lives In A Spin : How It All Began by Penelope Lively

  • I once saw an entire film that followed people after they encountered someone else. So, maybe one character would walk past someone in a mini mart. Then, the story would follow the person they passed. After a while, the story would follow someone else that person passed, etc. You never got to know any of the characters well, but it made for some interesting storytelling. I hadn’t thought much about the chain of people we all meet each day before I saw that movie. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name.

    • That sounds an interesting film. The other movie I can think of that is about fate and what if xyz hadn’t happened is Sliding Doors…

  • buriedinprint

    I love her acerbic observations of ordinary life and human behaviour. She’s so astute! (She’s also one of my MustReadEverything MRE authors!)

    • I suspect she will become one of my “must read everything” authors too

  • Oh, that does sound good! I need to read more of Lively’s adult books – her non fiction books are good too! 😀

  • This sounds so good! I have quite a few Lively’s in the 746 but haven’t read any yet – despite hearing only good things.

    • I was blown away by just how good this was. You have me intrigued with that mention of her non fiction work, shall have to investigate now

  • Judy Krueger

    I have read Making It Up and The Photograph. She is a wonderful writer.

    • Making a note of these. I think I have one called Family Album on my shelves

  • This does sound good I have only read a couple of books by Penelope Lively, one was Moon Tiger, though I can’t remember it now. The other was The Photograph, which I enjoyed.

    • She’s an author I would imagine to be right up your street Ali.

  • Lovely review, Karen, although I’m sorry that the library withdrew the book from stock. My favourite Livelys are very different from this one – The Photograph and Heat Wave – but both demonstrate that sharp observation that makes her characters so memorable.

    • The Photograph has been mentioned by several people so it’s rising up my wish list.


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