2013-12-19 / Opinions

Book Review

How It All Began
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I t began when a mugger knocked Charlotte down, stealing her purse. The dreaded broken hip resulted, and after a time in the hospital, Charlotte had no choice but to go home to her daughter and son-inlaw during her recovery. Rose and Gerry were helpful and welcoming, but Charlotte was accustomed to living alone and looking after herself. “Of course before the hip there was the knee, and the back, but that was mere degeneration, not malign external interference.”

Novelist Penelope Lively is interested in more than the impact on Charlotte, however. She looks at the “unintended consequences” of the resulting disruptions to other lives. Lively’s writing always concerns itself with understanding life and the choices we make. Several people who don’t even know Charlotte are affected by the changes in her life. Foremost among those who do know her are Rose and Gerry, though Gerry probably never realizes how much might have changed beyond the minor inconvenience of sharing his home. Rose assists an elderly, wealthy former professor. To take Charlotte to an appointment, she has to cancel a trip with him to a conference where he is to speak. In her stead, his niece Marion accompanies him. She, in turn, has to cancel a date with her married lover. The message she leaves for him overturns his marriage.

And we haven’t yet mentioned Anton, one of the most attractive characters in the book. He is a recent immigrant whom Charlotte has begun tutoring in English. Since she can no longer go to the teaching center, he comes to her for his lessons, which of course means meeting her in Rose’s home. Reading has always been central to Charlotte’s life. Because Anton is obviously very intelligent, though his English is severely limited, she devises ways to help him learn, using favorite children’s books. (Lively even manages to get in a dig at The Da Vinci Code.)

Meanwhile, “The Daltons’ marriage broke up because Charlotte Rainsford was mugged.” Jeremy was Marion’s lover (a less than attractive character, though his wife Stella doesn’t excite us either). If all this sounds confusing, it really isn’t. Through different narrators, Lively remains in control of the developing relationships, drawing the reader into caring about them, even when obnoxious Mark enters the plot, deceiving Rose’s self-absorbed professor Henry.

Mark is the youngest character in this book, unless we count the mugger, who never appears on stage. Henry was momentarily devastated when he forgot important points in his speech at the conference. Marion tried to comfort him, but he raves on, “I have been made to look stupid through no fault of my own.” Henry thinks there is something to be said for child labor, but Charlotte remembers fondly her own youth and happy marriage. Although we hear again that “old age is an insult” and “old age is not for wimps,” the lives of these elderly and middle-aged characters hold hope for the rest of us.

Lively closes, “These have been the stories of Charlotte, of Rose and Gerry, of Anton, of Jeremy and Stella, of Marion, of Henry, Mark, of all of them… These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.” These stories are available in How It All Began at the Mary Willis Library.

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