28 June 2021

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

This is a quiet gem of a book that I picked up at a nearby United church sale a few years ago.  I would almost bet that I didn't bother to read a single page before tucking it into my bag - it's Penelope Lively.  The blurb on the back cover mentions an incident in which an elderly woman is mugged on a London street.  Similar to the butterfly effect, the act of violence committed against Charlotte (over in the blink of an eye) tips the first domino in a series of events that will impact the course of several characters' lives.  

Charlotte Rainsford is at the hospital waiting for her daughter to arrive.  She takes stock of the items she had in her purse....

   A handful of Three for Two's at Waterstones?  A ticket to Covent Garden?  It'll have to be Upper Circle, I'm afraid.  A subscription to the Friends of the Royal Academy?

By page six I had already decided that Charlotte and I would get along.  I can't quite remember if Charlotte's hip was actually broken when she was pushed over, but in any case she is now on crutches.  Rose makes up one of the bedrooms so Charlotte can be looked after properly while she recover.  With Rose and Gerry's son James working in Singapore, and daughter Lucy away at college there is plenty of space.  Mother and daughter get along but both women silently acknowledge they are looking forward to having the intimacy of their own home again soon.

Busy with her mother, Rose has to take some time away from work as a personal assistant to Lord Peters; he's asked her to call him Henry.  Formerly head of Royal Commissions and advisor to a prime minister Henry is an endearing character in that he is firmly living in the past.  While most of the world has gone digital, Henry is not about to forego his filing cabinet or landline.  Lately he's been toying with the idea of presenting a six-part series on the essence of the Augustan age.  Delia Channing, an executive in broadcasting is mildly entertained by Henry's pitch but will have to find a way of putting the brakes on his enthusiasm.  And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Corrie, Henry's cook whose menu repertoire hasn't moved very far from the 50s.  

Henry's niece Marion steps in to help out as his PA while Rose takes some time off.  During a talk Henry is giving in Manchester, Marion strikes up a conversation with George Harrington, a self-professed 'money man' with an interest in Marion's line of work, sourcing expensive furnishings for wealthy clients.  There is a property in Hampstead he would like to have renovated and would she mind having a look?  

Marion can't believe her luck as the recession has dried up business.  A new prospect might be the turn of events she has been waiting for.  And Mr Harrington is looking decidedly more interesting than her current fling, Jeremy Dalton.  Jeremy is in the same line of work as Marion but he specializes in reclamation.  Being the opportunistic sort, Jeremy has a string of clichés at the ready and little thought for anything other than his own satisfaction.  His sister-in-law is wise to the sort of man he is...if only Gill could convince her sister to remove the scales from her eyes.    

As Charlotte's hip begins to heal, she craves some purpose to her day.  Handing over the leadership role to Rose feels foreign and leaves her feeling worthless.  Charlotte calls the coordinator of the adult literacy course where she teaches with a suggestion....could she tutor one of the pupils while at Rose's house?  Enter Anton, a handsome Eastern European accountant learning to read English so he can move on from his manual labour job on a building site.

How It All Began is a lovely story, the sort that fall into your lap and end up being so much more than you were hoping for.  I never tire of London as a setting and its boroughs came alive as characters went about their day.  Descriptions of shopping on Oxford Street, strolling in Richmond Park or taking in the exhibits at the Victoria and Albert museum cheerfully reminded me of my own visits there.  And Penelope Lively writes sympathetically of the immigrant experience, their effort to fit into British culture.   With Rose as his mentor and friend, Anton learns the finer points of an English picnic and the nuances of vocabulary.  The crew of Polish builders working for Marion on the Hampstead project are hardworking and dedicated, and people flock to Charlotte's adult literacy classes from countries around the world.  But my favourite takeaway sentiment from How It All Began is the beautifully blended storylines of young and old, past and present.

I hope the person who donated this book to the church sale read it before passing it along.  If not, they have missed out. It is a very good read!

Detail from The Schoolroom, 1938
Vanessa Bell


  1. This sounds wonderful! It's a Lively I haven't heard of - and I have quite a few of hers unread of my shelves, of course.

    1. And isn't it terrific that she's still writing! We can't say that about most of our favourite authors, can we. Don't hesitate to reach for this one on one of your many heaving bookcases, Simon!

  2. Sounds like the meme Six Stages of Separation (?) everything is linked in some karmic fashion. This sounds lovely reading. Thank you for the review. Very unlikely I will be able to source it here so I did enjoy reading about it.

    1. I'm so sorry that the books you read about on my blog seem to be elusive on your side of the world, Mystica. Perhaps publishers are missing an opportunity when it comes to books in translation. Barring that, may a very large box of C20 books from England suddenly appear at a book sale near you.

  3. I miss the days when Waterstone's offered a Three for Two! Never read Penelope Lively but I've just ordered Oleandar,Jacaranda. Will check this one out, too.

    1. I miss Waterstones, full stop! But yes, even as a tourist I would scan the display tables for three titles because it's so easy to be seduced by an offer such as that.
      And Oleandar, Jacaranda sounds wonderfully exotic....I hope you love it, Nicola!