How It All Began

The main underlying theme in this new book by Penelope Lively is the role of chance in everyday lives. Lively prefaces the book with a quote about The Butterfly Effect (the idea that a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a thunderstorm on the other side of the world). The novel opens with Charlotte, a seventy something book-loving Londoner being mugged. The mugging then goes on to effect both those close to Charlotte and people who she has never met. A marriage is destroyed. A woman suffers near financial ruin. A young academic finds the needed foot in the door to begin his career. Another marriage is threatened. An immigrant learns to read and finds the courage to start a new life in his new country.

I understand the appeal of the butterfly effect theory. There is something very appealing about wondering “what if?” What if I hadn’t gone for a walk one day fifteen years ago and thought the church near my house looked pretty (the church where I would meet my now husband)? What if my Parisian grandmother hadn’t answered my American soldier grandfather when he asked the crowd on the Paris subway what time it was? Even more mysteriously compelling is the idea that tiny seemingly insignificant events effect us and others in ways we never know. Did I just narrowly avoid the car accident I drove past last night because we were running slightly late because we ran back inside to get Ruth a snack?


While I think it is an interesting philosophical exercise, as a Christian I believe in more than chance. The balance between predestination and free will is one I don’t pretend to understand and it’s a mystery that I’m content to accept as a mystery. I believe that God is in control, of the big and the small and that He is working all things to His own glory. Beyond that, I don’t know how it all works.

In this passage, two of Lively’s characters have a discussion about chance vs. fate:

“All meetings are accidents really, I suppose. They might never have happened.” Marriages, she thought.

“Oh yes, unless you believe in…how do you say?…. what is going to happen anyway, it is going to come, it have to come.”

“Fate. Destiny.”

“Is that how you say it? And no- I think I do not believe in that.”

“I suppose it would be worse if one did. No escape. As it is, you can always hope for a bit of luck.” (p. 193)

It seemed to me, however, that the characters in this book had no escape from the effects of random chance. Things happen to them and they react. They seem to have as much control over their lives or choices as a piece of driftwood. I find the idea of random chance governing our lives as disturbing as it is fascinating.

Which brings me to my other complaint with the idea of the butterfly effect as presented here. The title of the novel is How It All Began but in reality it begins before the beginning. Yes, the mugging of Charlotte leads to another woman leaving a text message on her lover’s phone that is discovered by his wife which then leads to the destruction of that marriage. But it didn’t start with the text message. It started with the man making the choice to commit adultery. Had he not done that, there would be no text message to leave.   Yes, I went to the church where I met H. by chance but the choice to go back was mine. Nor would I have gone to the church in the first place if I hadn’t been thinking about returning to church for awhile before that day that I took a walk.

The other main theme of the book is the importance of story in our lives. Charlotte is a book lover and an adult literacy volunteer. After her mugging she must spend weeks recuperating from a broken hip at the home of her adult daughter. She begins to intensively tutor Anton, an Eastern European immigrant who can read in his own language but is struggling with English. A breakthrough occurs when she realizes that he needs to hear story and begins by giving him picture books to read. Lively also explores the idea of story as she weaves together the multiple different threads. I loved this description of Charlotte:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading…

…..She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a midwestern pioneer. She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.

…..Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge….She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without. (p. 34-35)

I would definitely recommend this book if you like books that make you think a bit. If you like to muse on things like chance vs. destiny you can also check out the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow move, Sliding Doors which explores the same themes.

3 thoughts on “How It All Began

  1. Love the quote at the end, but I don’t think I’d care much for the premise of the book. Like you, I know my own meeting of my DH was way more than chance ! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: December 22, 2012 | Semicolon

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