I’ve read a couple of Penelope Lively books before, one by force at school and the other on the recommendation of a friend. They were very good indeed. So having stumbled upon her 2011 novel How it all began in the sale section I thought I was in luck. Earlier this year I read the 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, and I was floored by it. Such was its impact that if I’d discovered it aged fifteen then my life would have taken a very different path. I purchased How it all began with high expectations.
The first warning bell sounded with the cover. Many books get mis-packaged, that’s not unusual but this was an author of literary fiction bound up in a chick lit wrapping. In the rather prosaic photograph on the front there are piled paperbacks on view and almost all are Lively’s. It’s just an odd cover.
But I didn’t buy it for the cover.
The plot follows the butterfly effect of the mugging of an elderly lady resulting in a broken hip. Her subsequent hospitalisation and rehabilitation in her daughter’s home forces events into motion, upsetting a half dozen strangers’ lives in the process. A third person narrative sees each of the ensemble cast having to deal with the chain of consequences, some merely inconvenient and others more destructive. It flits back and forth between contemporary domestic settings giving acutely observed character portraits. I can’t fault the writing.
There’s something missing though.
The story moves too sluggishly from one cosily upholstered location to another. It has none of the harshness of Moon Tiger, there are no sharp edges to cut oneself on and no dirt and grit. Whether you loved or hated Claudia Hampton, she was an interesting character and bold enough to hang a whole novel on. I’m not emotionally invested in the people who populate How it all began. They are likeable but there’s a lack of passion in them and without that there’s little to hold interest.
Conceptually, How it all began is a great idea, a single event setting off a domino rally of domestic upheaval. If the concept was executed with the same brilliance as Moon Tiger then this would be a superb novel. It may, of course, be a slow burner and build to a dramatically fulfilling climax. I will have to keep reading to find out, sadly, so far it seems unlikely to reach that conclusion.