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Senior Correspondent

The Happenstance of ‘How It All Began’

Book Review

The Happenstance of ‘How It All Began’

“How It All Began” by Penelope Lively (New York

I have a passion for things British — books, movies, plays, "Downton Abbey" — and was delighted when a friend called author Penelope Lively to my attention.

The title foretells what’s ahead: a single incident, just happenstance, sets into motion complications in the lives of numerous persons connected to a woman in her 80s named Charlotte, who is pivotal to the story.

Not many books feature a leading character in her 80s, but her ties to others in the book help weave an absorbing tale. There is her daughter Rose, married to the taciturn Gerry, and employed by a haughty, once prominent academician seeking to revive his declining image. Referred to as “his lordship” by Rose and her family, Sir Henry has a niece, Marion, who is drawn into accompanying him on an ill-fated lecture in another city.

Marion’s lover is Jeremy, a husband who can’t resist extra-marital involvements. Then we meet Anton, an immigrant from central Europe, who is being tutored in English by Charlotte as she recovers from the incident that set the story in motion: she was mugged and thrown to the pavement in London, breaking her hip. Her long convalescence forms the backdrop, and tutoring Anton makes the time more pleasant. An intelligent young man who was a professional in his own country, Anton now earns wages as a construction worker. He knows a proper command of English will help restore his former way of life.

Ms. Lively is a witty, perceptive, and erudite writer who won the Booker prize, for the best English-language book by a UK and Commonwealth writer, for one of her previous novels, "Moon Tiger." She has received awards for her numerous children’s books. It’s pleasure to read her prose as she comments on the many social changes in 20th century Britain while unfolding a highly original story.

This saga proceeds in segments devoted to each character. Often the part ends at a point of suspense, but the author then picks up in a way that deals with the last we heard of that person. It’s rather like watching a movie unfolding in segments that eventually fit together in a way that seems just right.

The wrap-up is even more direct, almost like a short newspaper account of how things turned out for each person, not always in ways we might anticipate. Here’s an author whose acquaintance I’m happy to have made.

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