“How it All Began” by Penelope Lively

“How it All Began” by Penelope Lively (2012) – 229 pages

“How it All Began” is a very English novel, so a lot of the conversation in the novel is about furniture.

In these articles, I try not to play God; I do not pass judgments on novels. Instead I will write ‘This novel worked for me’ or ‘That novel did not work for me.’ I’m quite content that I don’t have the same literary tastes as the average reader, and I’m sure these average readers have little use for my favorite books either.

“How It All Began” did not work for me. The premise of the novel is that all that happens in the novel occurs as a result of one initiating act. At the beginning of “How It All Began”, Charlotte is literally robbed and mugged by a poor teenager. Even though the novel takes place in the present time, this mugging by a teenager is so Seventies. Today Charlotte would more likely be literally robbed and figuratively mugged by a billionaire. This is the first occasion in the novel that Lively gets our modern times wrong.

So we have an initiating act that determines everything else in the novel. This is Blaise Pascal’s idea that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed. If we had walked this direction instead of that direction, our lives would have turned out completely differently. This plot device is so trite that it smacks of a writer frantically looking for a topic.

It wasn’t always thus between Penelope Lively and me. At one point, after reading “Moon Tiger’, “Passing On”, and “The Photograph”, I considered her one of my very favorite writers. I don’t believe that these former novels were intended to be humorous, and it is in the attempt to be humorous in “How It All Began” that is Lively’s downfall here. She just does not have that light touch required for comedy.

“How It All Began” just tries too hard to be jaunty. All of the characters have a jaunty, I suppose English, attitude. After reading this novel, I can’t help but think that this relentless jauntiness is a distinctly English character defect. Even the one non-English character, the Balkan immigrant Anton, adopts this trait to the delight of everyone except me.

And the characters are always busy. They have to be oh so busy doing their multitude of tasks and visiting their many, many friends. All this busy-ness naturally gets tiresome at some point. One of the great humorous novels of all time, “Oblomov” by Ivan Goncharov, is about a guy who goes many days without getting out of bed at all. That would never happen in “How It All Began”. These characters grate by constantly doing things that are useful and productive. That’s not comedy, that’s sort of real life.

I found the novel to be a quite heavy-handed attempt at comedy.

Then again you may love “How It All Began”.


6 responses to this post.

  1. I liked your observation there that you will not play God. Too often, in writing reviews, I catch myself wondering if I should really criticize a book – and I think your idea is wonderful – to just say that the novel didn’t work for me. I hadn’t heard of this novel – does it read fast? I am so jaded that I think I need a book that you can flip through fast – and not think too much. Any suggestions? 🙂



    • Hi Soulmuser,
      Yes, I would say ‘How It All Began’ is a fast read, and I know lots of readers are going to really like this book, if not me. In fact, I read about ten positive reviews of this novel and not one negative one before I wrote mine. I guess it’s all subjective.



  2. Hi, Tony. I just read How It All Began. A new book! Aren’t you surprised?

    I liked it much better than you did, but the authorial intrusions about the effect of the mugging on the all the characters’ lives didn’t work for me either. I did think the post-mugging beginning was realistic, and the effects of the mugging on all the characters’ lives, but we didn’t need to hear about it three or four times or however many times we did.

    The characters grew on me, and I was moved by the book.

    But I don’t seem to have much to say about it. Usually new books are easier for me to write about than older books, so I’m not sure what’s going on here. I should blog about it.

    But you’re right: this is absolutely not in the same class as Moon Tiger.



    • Hi Frisbee,
      You read a new book, and I just posted on an old book from 1958, so we kind of switched places here. Penelope Lively was my literary idol for a few years in the early Nineties. “How It All Began” didn’t work very well for me, although it held my interest. Otherwise I would not have completed it. If I complete a book, that generally means I liked it to some extent. Hope you blog about the book; at this point I can’t imagine reading a book and not blogging about it, because I do have those two posts a week hanging over my head.



  3. The first line of your review about the furniture really made me laugh! I always appreciate an honest review and I think if we can’t be honest then there isn’t much point in reviewing at all. So thank you for that. I’ve been looking out for this book after reading Moon Tiger but perhaps I will pick up The Photograph next or maybe Consequences which my library has and try How It All Began a bit further down the track.



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