Passion, gentility, manners, and morals.
Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By KYLE SMITH
Male infidelity, though, tends to come in for caustic treatment here and elsewhere in Lively’s work, which recycles other elements as well. There is usually a headstrong, accomplished, but emotionally wary woman who isn’t quite as fascinating to the reader as she is to the author. In How It All Began that is Marion, but see also the paleofeminist Molly in Consequences (2007), the globetrotting journalist Gina in Family Album (2009), and the history writer Claudia in the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger (1987). There is a dashing but sensitive man (Anton) rendered unavailable by fortune. (There are two of these in Moon Tiger: One is killed off in World War II, another is the central character’s brother.) His flip side is the charming but unreliable dilettante (Jeremy here, Nick in The Photograph (2003), Jasper in Moon Tiger, Paul in Family Album).
Lively’s satiric kindling is never enough to spark a bonfire or roast a sacred cow. The most promising confrontation is between Henry and Mark, a scheming young historian who leverages his sycophancy into a job sorting through the older man’s library. The task ought to take a month or two, but Mark plans to extend the work indefinitely while Henry’s funding bankrolls other pursuits. Nothing much happens, Lively retreats, and the two of them drift onwards as the author informs us that “time does not end, and stories march in step with time.” Meanwhile, Rose sighs by the windows: “Don’t think of him. Yes, think of him—because I must, have to, can’t help it.”
By turns shrewd and tart, and nearly always elegant, Lively is nevertheless grounded in standard Victorian female fantasy.
Kyle Smith is a film critic at the New York Post.