Penelope Lively has built a career on pushing the boundaries of the novel; indeed, her books are usually a special alchemy of meta-fiction and provocative storytelling. How It All Began proves no exception. While the leading lady of her recent tale may be waging war against the pitfalls of growing old, at 78 years old, Lively herself shows no signs of slowing down and proves she is still a writer in her prime.

How It All Began is populated with striking and dynamic characters, but it is also a novel of ideas. Putting her own spin on the “Butterfly Effect” of chaos theory, Lively examines the notion that one small event can have dramatic, far-reaching ramifications. In the traditional example, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could ultimately result in a tornado in Texas, but here, the catalyst is retired schoolteacher Charlotte Rainsford getting mugged on the streets of London. The resulting tumult not only disrupts Charlotte’s life, but also wreaks havoc on an expansive cast of characters, many of whom are not even aware of Charlotte’s existence. Relationships will be tested, the economy will crash, some characters will realize their dreams while others will find them shattered—all because of one old woman.

In essence, How It All Began is the business of life scaled to fit within the pages of a novel. What sets it apart is the way Lively constantly prods her characters to reflect upon the sum of their choices and the random machinations of which people are generally unaware, in order to take stock of their lives. One recurring theme in Lively’s novels that reappears here is the idea that life is random. It is only in retrospect that the human desire for meaning prompts us to impose a narrative structure on events. We like clear-cut explanations for why things happen as they do and for events to hold meaning; this is why we crave stories and find them wherever we look. But here, Lively gamely demonstrates that in reality, the flow of cause and effect is gnarled and convoluted, and that we could all so easily be living another life. Heavy stuff for a slim novel, yet the tone is never overly philosophical and the narrative is spritely. This is a book so vital, you will feel its heart thrum alongside your own as you read, its spell lasting long after its close.

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