Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How It All Began

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively

I've never read Penelope Lively before, even though she is an incredibly prolific British writer.

In fact, this must be one of the most English modern novels I've read in some time! When I started reading, I was struck by how many expressions most Americans wouldn't necessarily understand, but I have the advantage of knowing after cohabitating with a Brit for 25 years. For example--these are from scanning just the first few pages:

  • Her hip was giving her stick.
  • Shirty enough if anyone looked like taking liberties.
  • Lord Peters does not provide puffs for other people's books.
  • Occasionally you considered chucking in the job.
  • He'll be tetchy.
  • Breeding will out.
  • You endure, but also observe; you become a beady eye, appreciating the spectacle. (And the constant reference to oneself as third person rather than first person)
  • Day's supply of whatever is their particular tipple...
  • She'll be coming to us for awhile.
  • Rose will fetch her and install her in her room.
  • Nice girl? (the tendency to call women girls until they are well into their 40s)

I liked how this book started out: "The pavement rises up and hits her." The book is about "the butterfly effect," how one minor incident (in this case, the main character, Charlotte, getting mugged on a London street) can affect many people seemingly unconnected from the person directly affected.

Because Charlotte breaks her hip as a result of the mugging, she moves in with her daughter Rose, who must find someone else to accompany her pompous and very English employer Lord Peters to Manchester. That someone is his niece Marion, who sends a text to her lover, Jeremy, which is intercepted by his highly anxious and dramatic wife, Stella, putting their marriage into a tailspin. Before breaking her hip, Charlotte tutored English foreign language students, and one of them, an Eastern European named Anton, begins getting private instruction from her. Rose takes a shine to Anton, although neither act on their attraction to each other.

One of the challenges with this book is that the characters are not particularly likable or relatable for me. Most of the characters seem to be just propelling through life without any effort to be happy or fulfilled. Jeremy, I just wanted to slap upside the head. He's having an affair with Marion yet wants to keep his wife as well. He's a complete narcissist. Lord Peters is amusing but would be incredibly annoying in person. Charlotte is the most sympathetic, but the reserve of the writing and the setting keeps "one" from becoming attached.

Ultimately, it's the kind of novel where no one is truly happy at the end, except perhaps Marion (hard to say). I enjoyed this novel more in the beginning than at the end...by then I was ready to move on.

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