The action of Penelop Lively's How It All Began unfolds as a domino effect. Elderly Charlotte falls and breaks her hip when she's mugged on the streets of London. Her daughter, Rose, rushes to her side at the hospital and is forced to miss out on a business trip with her employer, retired academic Lord Peters. He in turn calls upon his niece, Marion, to take Rose's place. Marion sends a text to update the married man she's having an affair with. Said text is discovered by his wife. Meanwhile, Charlotte moves in with Rose for the duration of her recovery, which throws Rose into an unlikely friendship with an Eastern European immigrant that Charlotte is tutoring in English. The novel juggles all of these story lines, connected by the fact that none of them would have come to pass if it hadn't been for the random act of Charlotte's mugging.
I always like when a simple twist of fate plays a role in a story, but I felt as though it was an unnecessary device in this novel. Certain moments, often at the beginning or closing of a chapter, took time out of the action to remind readers that "such and such wouldn't have happened if Charlotte hadn't had her accident". I almost wonder if this was emphasized as a way of giving the book a hook for its jacket copy and an angle from which to market it. Once the story moved away from this focus, I found that the various characters and their story lines were richly drawn enough to stand on their own, without having to take the premise to gimmicky heights. Lively strikes me (in this book, at least) as an author who has a lot of affection for her characters. Each undergoes his or her own transformation, but in ways that are realistic and recognizable. Very much along the lines of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, this is a novel that features the kinds of relationships that don't often take center stage in popular fiction, and portrays them with sensitivity and insight.