So I have been reading 'How it all began' by Penelope Lively, a nice quiet undemanding little story, just over 200 pages, partly about the importance of stories. It is a slightly disconcerting style because it self consciously tells you that it is telling you a story, and then at the end recaps the story it has just told and summarises what became of the characters. It's just a device but I'm not sure I like it. She is a Booker prize winner so you tend to expect great things, though I have not read Moon Tiger. The book I really know her for is Astercote, a children's book published in 1970, that I still have on my shelf.
Charlotte, an elderly woman is mugged and the consequences of her injury ripple out via her daughter, her daughter's employer, his niece, her lover and his wife. It is just a gentle tale of people living their lives, and how this little incident kind of changes things, but kind of doesn't, it stirs them up and then the dust settles and life goes on. In fact, yes, the more I contemplate what happens the more I realise it is a story about life staying the same. These are all people who's lives are pretty uneventful. Something, the mugging and it's consequences, disrupt them, but at the end of the book everyone is pretty much settled back into the same little niche in which they started. Unexpected events have an impact, but often much more minimal than you might expect. Except maybe the Polish accountant, I think he changes his life more than the others. It reminded me of a TED lecture I listened to recently, that talked about happiness, and what a small impact even very significant events have on people's lives and how people perceive happiness (always interesting stuff there, but I should try and avoid digression.)
I was trying to pin down in my head who is the main character but it doesn't really have one. It hops from one person to another at random, without focussing on anyone in particular, it is not one story with sub-plots but really lots of sub-plots. The most interesting of them is Lord Henry, a slightly doddering retired professor of history to whom Rose (Charlotte's daughter) acts as personal assistant and general dogsbody. I mean, everyone is self-centred, it's a fact of life, but it's always amusing to read a character like this, it makes you feel smug. He is so stuck in his own version of reality and what is important, and his sense of his own importance, that you kind of enjoy him getting his comeuppance. But of course he creates a new version of reality and settles back down into his life and just tells himself that everyone else is at fault.
It's all very nice and middle class and comfortable. Charlotte is not traumatised by the violence nor afraid to go back to her home, she is just inconvenienced by the injury. Rose will not leave her safe marriage and family. The 'lover' (who's name I forget) wheedles his way back into his nice safe marriage. The niece sorts out her financial problems quite simply.
It was just a nice story but nothing special, no challenge for the characters or the reader. Good books really need to have something more.