'How It All Began': one mugging, many outcomes
British author Penelope Lively shows how chance and coincidence can alter people's lives in her new novel, "How It All Began."
Special to The Seattle Times
'How It All Began'
by Penelope Lively
Viking, 240 pp., $26.95
When Charlotte Rainsford, a 77-year-old, is mugged on a London street and left with a broken hip, the consequences of this random act have an impact on the lives of several people. British novelist Penelope Lively ("Moon Tiger") is a consummate storyteller who once again illuminates the ways that the vagaries of chance bring powerful alteration to the ordinary plans of ordinary people.
Charlotte is forced to move in with her daughter and son-in-law after leaving the hospital. Charlotte's daughter, Rose, is employed by a very posh historian obsessed with his memoirs. Her husband, Gerry, is a putterer, seldom underfoot. Though routine, privacy and predictability are all compromised by this sudden togetherness, everyone rallies to make it work.
Since Charlotte is now unable to go out to teach her adult-reading class to new Londoners, she invites Anton, an Eastern European economic migrant, to her daughter's home. Using this device, Lively emphasizes the importance and irresistibility of story — Charlotte teaches Anton through children's books.
He is captivated by tales he's never heard — such as "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Charlotte's Web." Through Charlotte's teaching and Rose's friendship, Anton comes to believe that he will actually be able to be an accountant again, his chosen profession, instead of working on a building site forever.
Lively uses the epigraph from James Gleick explaining the butterfly effect ("In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state") to illustrate the ripple effect that her injury has on everyone in her life.
The characters in this novel are, each and all, well drawn and fully conceived. Their interactions, through Charlotte's presence in a place not her home, are alternately casual and filled with import for their futures.
Lively makes an irrefutable case for the alteration of people's lives due to someone they will never know — the mugger. Her conclusion: "... no man is an island, not even a fourteen-year-old with behavioral problems." Everyone in this elegantly told tale is connected by chance and the power of story.
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