The Butterfly Effect: Penelope Lively, How It All Began

I’m a long-time fan of Penelope Lively’s Booker-winning 1987 novel Moon Tiger.  In my first year teaching at Dalhousie, it was one of the novels I assigned in a seminar on women and historical writing (IIRC, I also assigned Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic — these details date me as much as the seminar!). I’ve read a number of Lively’s novels since then (including Cleopatra’s Sister) but none has made the kind of impression on me that Moon Tiger did. I wonder if that’s at least partly because she seems to return frequently to similar themes. In my post on Cleopatra’s Sister, for instance, I note that like Moon Tiger, it explores the ways “moments are collected into histories, which give retrospective meaning because, in hindsight, we can see the steps that made a difference, that turned things in one direction or another” — as well as in “the paradoxical relationship of unimportant individuals to the larger narratives of history.”

livelyI could say very much the same things about How It All Began, which begins with a random event — here, the street mugging of retired English teacher Charlotte Rainsford — and then traces out the effects of this one moment in the lives of an array of interconnected characters. There’s a logic, or at least an intelligibility, to the way things unfold, but that is not the same as their being destined or fated, though at times the characters are tempted to interpret their experiences this way. Lively sets up the novel with a quotation about the “Butterfly Effect” from James Gleick’s Chaos, so we know that she is deliberately playing with the possibilities of this idea. The mugger (an unsavory butterfly!) couldn’t possibly have foreseen the personal and professional consequences of his own thoughtless action: “beyond him, unknown and of no interest, he had left Charlotte on her crutches, the embattled Daltons, Henry in his humiliation, Marion, Rose, Anton . . . ”

It’s Lively’s gift, though, to make each of these people of genuine interest to us. There are no cataclysms, no dramatic show-downs, no epiphanies in How It All Began, but by the end of the novel very little is quite the same in anyone’s life, all because of the sequence of disruptions begun with the mugging. Charlotte’s injury causes Rose to stay away from work for a while, so her employer, historian Sir Henry Peters, calls on his daughter Marion, thus precipitating a last-minute text message to Marion’s married lover Jeremy, which is intercepted by Jeremy’s wife Stella — and thus “the Daltons’ marriage broke up because Charlotte Rainsford was mugged.” Marion, unaccustomed to tending to Sir Henry’s business, forgets his notes when they head to an event at the University of Manchester; as a result, his speech is a disaster, which leads Henry into various machinations designed to revivify his moribund career and recover some wished-for celebrity. In Manchester, Marion meets a man she hopes will help turn around her struggling interior design business; though her involvement with him doesn’t lead to financial prosperity (little does, in this age of recession and belt-tightening), it turns out nonetheless to be a fortuitous encounter.

Charlotte, in the meantime, who has moved into Rose’s home for her convalescence, misses having a purposeful way to pass the time. So she arranges to tutor one of the students from her adult literacy class, Anton, “a soft-spoken man, central European of some kind.” Rose, married to the underwhelming Gerry, offers to take Anton shopping for clothes for his mother back home. Rose and Anton begin meeting regularly to walk and talk, and their friendship and, eventually, their deeper feelings bring them to a difficult decision:

You live twenty years in a London suburb. Husband, children, house, cat — go to the supermarket. Then — something happens. A person happens, that’s all. Him.

You do not mess up everything that has been important to you for most of your life because you are in love with an Eastern European immigrant you have known for ten weeks. You do not do that to Gerry. To Lucy and James [their children].

Do you?

During their reading lessons, Charlotte has an idea: for the dreary literacy primers, she substitutes children’s books so that Anton will be drawn on by story. It works: he learns faster because, as he realizes, “I must know what will happen.” “Powerful things, stories,” says Charlotte. How It All Began is about that power as much as it is about chaos theory: Charlotte reflects often on her own reading, and Lively too is self-conscious (perhaps a little too self-conscious, too overt) about the appeal of what she’s doing for us. “So that was the story,” she sums it up near the end:

These have been the stories: of Charlotte, of Rose and Gerry, of Anton, of Jeremy and Stella, of Marion, of Henry, Mark, all of them. The stories so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device . . . but time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.

Still, she is no more able to omit at least a sketch of all their endings than Eliot is with her panoply of characters in the Finale to Middlemarch. For all its interest in chaos theory, it’s not a formally experimental novel, just an artful, intelligent, sometimes quietly touching look at pretty ordinary people. Lively is particularly sharp (here as, again, in Moon Tiger) about aging. “Old age is not for wimps,” thinks Charlotte;

Ah, old age. The twilight years — that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot — roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn’t know about. We all avert our eyes, and then — wham! you’re in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.

Sir Henry’s pomposity and preening egotism make his lapses of memory more comical, but he too earns a certain pathos as he declines from self-important bluster to “reading and rereading in a desultory way, and eventually ceased to do even that.”

Though there’s nothing strikingly memorable or original about How It All Began, what it does, it does very nicely: it seems true, both to its characters and to what we know or feel about the tragicomedy and uncertainty of our lives.

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