Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A chain of cause and effect

How It All Began, Penelope Lively

This has been a year of reading Penelope Lively - books I'd had unread for years, and other books (new to me) that I came across.  And now there is her latest, which I've been anticipating ever since I saw it announced earlier in the year.  How It All Began is vintage Lively.  It is a story of cause and effect, of chance and choice, of the connections between people, and how a person's actions can affect more than just his or her own life.  The book opens with a quotation from James Gleick's Chaos: "The Butterfly Effect was the reason . . . Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features . . ."

As the story begins, Charlotte, an elderly woman, has been mugged.  The attack leaves her with a broken hip, and she must move in with her daughter Rose and son-in-law Henry while it heals.  Rose has to cancel a business trip with her employer, Lord Peters, a retired but still busy historian, and he recruits his niece Marion to accompany him instead.  To go with him, Marion has to break a date with her married lover; the text she sends him goes to his wife instead, who immediately throws him out.  This isn't one story, it's a chain of stories, and the characters move in and out of the different chapters, continuing to affect each other's lives.

In addition to the Butterfly Effect, Lively also uses the stories to explore the nature of history, one of her frequent themes.  Lord Peters belongs to the Great Man school of history (which features few women), arguing "that events are governed entirely by politics and persons," not by impersonal forces or by chance and choice.  We come to see how out of touch and in fact marginalized he has become, and there is a pathos in his attempts to reconnect and reinvent himself, though there is a satiric edge to Lively's portrait of him.  He stands in contrast to Charlotte, who is for me the heart of the stories.  She has been forced into dependence and the uncomfortable intimacy of living with her daughter.  Reading is her natural refuge:
"For ever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pas the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born; she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her - then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what is it that other people experience that she is missing."
I can't remember another Lively character with such a passion for reading.  And Charlotte has always shared her love of books.  A gifted teacher of English before her retirement, she now volunteers as a literacy tutor.  Her own reading and her sessions with one student, Anton, allow Lively to explore different books as well as the idea of reading itself, while also bringing Anton into the chain of cause and effect.  I was amused at the nods to P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, among others, and I think I now know a little about what Lively herself likes to read.

I really enjoyed this book.  It may not have the emotional weight of some of her books, like The Photograph or Perfect Happiness, but it is an engaging story (or set of stories), told with Lively's style and wit, with a cast of characters that draw you in.  I have to wonder, though, at Lively's American publishers.  The UK version (left, rather blurry) has the most attractive cover, one that I just want to sink down into, and it's a teaser for things that happen in the book. To my mind, the American cover is garish, and the uneven lettering looks silly.  Maybe they thought Americans would buy a book with a picture of London on it, but not one with books and flowers and tea.  I decided to splurge on the UK edition, and I'm so glad I did, however shallow that makes me.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!