To open a Penelope Lively novel is to accept an invitation to the exhilaration of nuance. That is the kind way of putting it. To be less kind would be to point out that, despite Dame Penelope’s interest in the sweep of history, her internationalism, her dramatic twists and emotionally devastating revelations, the final effect tends to be closed, even a little musty. Lively’s novels are filigreed, elegant, and small—tea-cozy literature for women of a certain age. It will be a shame when England stops producing such writers, but the mourning will be, like her books, tastefully muted.
The 17th novel by the Cairo-born, Oxford-educated Lively, How It All Began, is, like previous ones, compact (they tend to excuse themselves after 220 pages), gently barbed, acutely observed. Yet Lively’s defiantly bland titles (Going Back, Perfect Happiness, The Photograph) are a little too redolent of the overall climate of mildness within. Thanks to the psychological effect called “priming,” reviewers tend to use Lively’s adjectival surname to describe her work. Yet it is her given name, with its connotations of skill, steadfastness, patience, and (alas) the circumscription of an elegant lady who doesn’t get out much, that provides a more apt allusion.
The implicit question in the title is answered one sentence before the book begins: with the mugging of an elderly lady in London. The “it” is the chain of results. The victim, Charlotte, is so badly injured by falling to the sidewalk that she moves in to recuperate with her daughter Rose, who in turn requires time off from her employer, a pompous old historian named Henry.
Rose’s absence brings in Marion, Henry’s interior decorator niece, who (being not uninterested in what might be contained in the childless elder’s will) agrees to help out as his assistant. Unfamiliar with Rose’s duties, Marion neglects to pick up notes for a speech as she and her uncle dash out to a lecture. At the podium, Henry is forced to wing it, and embarrasses himself, inspiring him to start a memoir that could restore his reputation. The break in routine causes Marion to leave an unanticipated phone message with her married lover Jeremy, an antiques merchant. Intercepted by Jeremy’s emotionally fragile wife Stella, the message leads her to cast Jeremy out of her house, leaving him in financial disarray.
The injured Charlotte, meanwhile, who conducts classes in adult literacy, now holds them in the home Rose shares with her aggressively uncomplicated husband, Gerry. Rose is beguiled by one of Charlotte’s pupils, a central European named Anton who dispenses pidgin wisdom and possesses a “lean body” and “eyes with forests in them.”
The merits of How It All Began lie principally with the vinegary sketches of these Londoners and what they tell us about the state of England. Like Henry (who, baffled in an adventure on public transportation, thinks “the bus speaks in tongues, most of them unfamiliar. . . . But he is without curiosity, when it comes to those around him”), she sticks close to home. Amid her upscale creative class, occupations run the gamut from A (arts administrator) to B (book reviewer).
The throwback Henry—the one character who is both likable and a satiric target—provides the most amusement value. He’s a “gastronomic retard” who favors antediluvian cuisine (scotch broth, steak and kidney pie) in drowsy clubs, bores guests repeating advice he gave Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, and has lost touch with the latest research in his specialty. Lively’s finest sentence may be “The eighteenth century has moved on, leaving him behind.” And yet, baselessly bluff about his own renown, he marches (to Marion’s amazed annoyance) toward a big job hosting a television series.
By comparison, the fragile Stella, footloose Jeremy, and reflective Anton get only one dimension each. And Lively’s jokes at the expense of the puttering Gerry, though witty (“he retired to his shed at the end of the garden, and could be heard sawing and planing; for the last year or so he had been making a table”), seem unfairly to reduce him. The reason is so that we won’t feel too bad if his wife cheats on him. Lively seems prepared to justify cuckolding a husband for the crime of being a bit boring.
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.