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Bookmark: A couple of seriously good reads

January 26, 2012|By Julia Keller

Some marvelous novels vigorously refute the idea that so-called "literary fiction," the serious stuff, must be a tedious chore to read, like a bad-tasting medicine whose healing properties are somehow confirmed by the fact that you want to spit it out, first chance you get.

Let's start with Penelope Lively, because her new novel is such a spellbinding surprise. The 79-year-old author has been turning out great novels with Pez-dispenser efficiency for decades now, including "Moon Tiger," which won the 1987 Man Booker Prize, and personal favorites such as "The Road to Lichfield" (1977), "According to Mark" (1984) and "Family Album" (2009).

When a writer is as good as Lively, for as long as she has been that way, a certain complacency surely sets in among her readers.

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"Of course this is wonderful," you catch yourself murmuring. "Why wouldn't it be?"

The same fate must befall other exquisitely gifted literary craftswomen with notable work ethics such as Alice McDermott and Anne Tyler. Another day, another extraordinary novel.

Yet "How It All Began" is a revelation. While Lively's novels always feature intelligent people who use their brains to negotiate their way through a complex and sometimes perilous world, "How It All Began" is also about feeling. Lively creates one of the most authentic and moving love affairs in contemporary literature. It makes the plight of those sullen, simpering teens in the "Twilight" series look anemic and dull.

Charlotte Rainsford, a retired teacher, is mugged. That act — done anonymously, leaving Charlotte with a broken hip — initiates a run of contingent events that affect Charlotte's daughter, her daughter's husband, her daughter's employer, and on and on. Lively reminds us of the earnest, obtuse fumbling that constitutes most of what happens in a human life, the coincidences and accidents that are as much in charge as are the explicit decisions.

Charlotte, the narrator explains, "is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are essential foodstuff, who could starve without."

Compare this nuanced portrait of an older woman with an earlier depiction — the title character in Stewart O'Nan's dreary and insultingly one-dimensional novel, "Emily, Alone" (2011) — to appreciate Lively's achievement.

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