- - Friday, January 13, 2012

By Penelope Lively
Viking, $26.95 229 pages

With December’s announcement of Britain’s 2012 New Year Honors List, Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively was made a dame. But while the vaunted honor celebrates the prolific writer’s “services to literature,” her just-released novel, “How it All Began,” seals the deal. Startling and soothing, uncommonly paced, this is a book to treasure.

“How It All Began” opens with a mugging. Seventy-six-year-old Charlotte Rainsford is knocked down on a London Street, her purse stolen by an unseen thief. But before going further, a reader would do well to take the book’s epigraph as a clue to its engaging jigsaw of intertwined and spiraling lives:

“The Butterfly Effect was the reason. For small pieces of weather - and to a global forecaster small can mean thunderstorms and blizzards - any prediction deteriorates rapidly. Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features, from dust devils and squalls up to continent-size eddies that only satellites can see” - James Gleick, ‘Chaos.’ “

In other words offered midway through the book, “[A]pparently random phenomena have underlying order - a very small perturbation can make things happen differently from the way they would have happened if the small disturbances had not been there. A butterfly in the Amazon forest flaps its wings and provokes a tornado in Texas.”

Or, put another way, Charlotte has been knocked down, and roughly eight lives will be affected and redirected in ways not previously imagined.

Although Charlotte previously enjoyed a vigorous life on her own, the violent encounter sends her to a hospital with a fractured hip. Reluctantly, she calls her daughter, Rose, to tell Rose that once she is discharged from the hospital on crutches, she will need a place to stay. Then the butterfly effect takes hold.

When Rose cannot leave town for work because of having to attend to her mother’s needs, Rose’s boss, the aging but resilient Lord Peters, is obliged to take his niece Marion to a conference in Manchester. During that trip, Marion, an interior designer, slips up in a text message, and her affair with Jeremy, a married man, is discovered by his wife. Meanwhile shut-in Charlotte begins to teach English to Anton, an Eastern European immigrant, and Rose, also married, is drawn to him, first in friendship and then to something more.

To a person, each character is wholly developed, and the trajectory of all the chaotically intersecting lives moves forward. Ms. Lively attends to these with great care, and with every detail and keenly observed moment, the reader accrues more information about where it all leads. There are consequences to missteps and random acts.

Along the way, Ms. Lively offers a feast of literary and historical references. Charlotte, a voracious reader, reads what she can in pace with her recuperation. In the beginning, it’s P.G. Wodehouse, though as she starts to feel better, it’s Henry James’ “What Maisie Knew” and on toward Elizabeth Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” In a sort of parallel accounting, Anton, who struggles to learn English, begins with children’s books (Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and progresses to Ian McEwan (“Atonement,” “Saturday”), a writer whom he first read in his native language.

Choices are made in response to conditions imposed by a society caught in the middle of an economic downturn. Marion makes a bad business deal at great expense. Lord Peters, once known for his oratory, falters during an important speech and is humiliated. Rose’s marriage to Gerry is recalibrated. Jeremy’s marriage to the wronged Stella is likewise reset. And in this collapsing genteel world of Spode china and Morgan tiles discovered under a layer of mud, each individual rises to ever-changing circumstances and renovates.

All the characters and their exploits come to matter, but of them, the love affair between Rose and Anton (the outcome of which I will not reveal) may strike the deepest chord. Here is how Ms. Lively describes their growing affection:

“A little breeze had got up. Rose put an arm into her jacket, began to shrug it on. He reached behind her to help, then his hand lay on her shoulder. For a moment, for an everlasting moment, so that she would feel it still on the way home in the Tube, sitting there distracted. This can’t be, mustn’t be. This must not happen. But it has.”

Three cheers for chaos theory. Three cheers for this gorgeous writing.

• Carol Herman is books editor at The Washington Times.

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