I’ve been a fan of Penelope Lively’s novels for years; they’re rich with insight into human relationships and full of ambiguity and speculation about human behavior and motivation. She’s always interested in the effects of our actions; in fact, one of my favorite novels of hers is titled Consequences. In the opening pages of How it All Began, Charlotte Rainsford is mugged on the street in London and thereby hangs a tale. The event ripples outward, changing the lives of several characters, each of whom steps off the page, fully formed: cranky, lovable, self-absorbed, decent, greedy, and maddening, they’re people we recognize. More important, we want to see what happens to them as they are caught up in Lively’s web of consequences.
There’s satire, comedy, and tragedy, but also delightful insight into the role that reading, writing, and language play in our lives and inform our sense of self. Charlotte, recuperating with a stack of books from the mugging in the novel’s opening scene, muses about the role of reading in her life:
“Forever reading has been essential, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass 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 to read to find out what it is that other people are experiencing that she is missing.”
Passages like that are the reason I’ve always enjoyed Lively’s novels.