Monday, December 17, 2012

How It All Began

New York: Viking Penguin, c2012.
229 p.

What a gorgeous read this was. Lively just keeps getting better, and keeps in touch with modern life in her writing, which I enjoy. She doesn't write with the tone of a 79 yr old examining the past, rather she is fully engaged in daily life now.

This book is fresh in tone and in design -- look at that cover! I love it. It represents the theme of the story, the idea that everything gets bumped around and jangled by chance, and that we have to expect to be shaken up. The image reminds me of a snow globe with everything tossed around with one little shake.

The epigraph of this novel refers to the "butterfly effect", quoted by James Gleick in his book "Chaos". The idea that one small event can result in rapid, unforeseen consequences is the motif of this story.

It opens with 77 yr old Charlotte Rainsford being violently knocked down in the street and mugged. Her hip is broken and thus she must recuperate in her daughter Rose's home. As she has always been an active and independent woman, this chafes. Her pain and sense of constriction make her unable to even enjoy her traditional method of relaxation and engagement: reading.

To feel more useful she takes on a job tutoring Anton, an adult English learner. They begin by chucking out the dull ESL lessons that Anton is not finding helpful, and turn to children's books, which appeal to his sense of narrative. The two of them discuss the power of and the need for telling stories, along with their literacy instruction. That's one thing that I really adored about this book -- the love for books that permeates it, especially with Charlotte. She refers to novels and authors she's read throughout her life, she discusses them with others, she  notes other people reading, and measures her recovery by how she is able to move from reading Wodehouse to reading James and other challenging authors. Other characters also pick up books, including Anton (in his own language), or a cab driver who just happens to be reading Rasselas!

But Charlotte's mugging has many unseen effects. Because she is staying with her daughter Rose, Rose is unable to go with her employer to a lecture he is giving, and he makes a mess of things. Because he doesn't have Rose, he takes his niece Marion. Because Marion has to go along she sends an apologetic text to her married lover which his wife intercepts. Because Rose is at home she meets Anton, and they become friends and then perhaps a little more. I also liked the fact that the mugger was not part of the story; he was the catalyst in the opening pages and then was referred to near the end, but doesn't play a role in the lives that his one act disrupted.

I think my favourite element was the relationship between Rose and Anton. It is very moving, as another example of how lives could have gone in different directions at a certain point, but presently they are both too far down the path to turn back to other possibilities. Their relationship is subtle and yet powerful. I adored Anton, while also really liking the duller, more prosaic Gerry, Rose's husband. I thought that Lively did a great job of balancing these relationships and the tiny elements of each life that direct the action in specific ways.

All of these individual lives intertwine and each one is fascinating. The characters are engaging, each being caught up in the midst of their unpredictable lives and evoking sympathy, interest, or annoyance. Lively is very good at creating characters who are full of life, who think and discuss and feel things strongly. She also has a characteristic wit when it comes to people's foibles and flaws, and is able to puncture pretensions without being cruel. I love her vision, and her writing is memorable and quotable on its own.

Some of my favourite bits from this book:

Forever, 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 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 read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.
Specifically, she read bits of the Old Testament when she was ten because of all that stuff about issues of blood, and the things thou shalt not do with thy neighbour’s wife.  All of this was confusing rather than enlightening.
She got hold of a copy of Fanny Hill when she was eighteen, and was aghast, but also intrigued.
She read Rosamond Lehmann when she was nineteen, because her heart had been broken.  She saw that such suffering is perhaps routine, and, while not consoled, became more stoical.
She read Saul Bellow, in her thirties, because she wanted to know how it is to be American.  After reading, she wondered if she was any wiser, and read Updike, Roth, Mary McCarthy and Alison Lurie in further pursuit of the matter.  She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a Midwestern pioneer.  She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.
Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other.  Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks.  She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Ah, old age. The twilight years -- that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot -- roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about. We all avert our eyes, and then -- wham! you're in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.

...if people don't read, that's their choice; a lifelong book habit may itself be some sort of affliction.


  1. Great review, and I agree that the cover art is very nice. I try not to let the cover art sway my decisions too much, but it's definitely a factor.

  2. I know that we shouldn't be judging a book by its cover, but sometimes it does really add to the reading experience :)

  3. Oh, interesting! At first I thought perhaps this was the Lively book I referenced in my earlier comment, but I see that I was wrong and that that is Making it Up. (Which also sounds a bit more light-hearted.) This one sounds interesting, too. I like how Lively focuses on seemingly small things and then expands on them and their impact.

  4. Aarti - Lively is so interested in (and good at) tracing small incidents and consequences. A perennial theme, and one that greatly interests me.


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