Penelope Lively melds random, rational

April 28, 1993|By Joan Mooney | Joan Mooney,Contributing Writer

Penelope Lively loves to explore the broad sweep of history and the lives of individuals -- and her latest novel offers plenty of scope for both.

Not only does she trace her protagonists' lives back to childhood, but she also invents a country, Callimbia, and traces its roots to its beginnings, in the time of Cleopatra.

Seemingly random acts of fate with large consequences have always fascinated Ms. Lively, and here she raises the idea almost to a philosophy. Her fondness for making connections comes out in the book's first sentence: "Howard Beamish became a paleontologist because of a rise in the interest rate when he was six years old."

Throughout the book, characters are continually making seemingly trivial decisions that end up changing the course of their lives.

To give this idea another twist, the female protagonist, Lucy Faulkner, is brought up in London by Maureen, who is accepting of her fate to the point where she is attracted by the notion of predestination. While Maureen seems neither surprised nor upset by her disappearing husband and the benevolent paternalism of the welfare state, her daughter rebels and asks questions at every turn. Not surprisingly, she grows up to be a journalist.

Growing up in a different part of the country and in alternating chapters is Howard, drawn to paleontology by its orderliness and the promise of explanation for seemingly random connections:

"What occupied him . . . was the vision of the entire direction of a life latent at any single moment, implicit in the scheme of things, as though a silent refrain from the future were woven into the narrative, if only you knew how to pick up the future.

"Mercifully, it is impossible."

That last sentence, turning the rest of the thought on its ear, is Ms. Lively at her best -- recognizing that our search for order, connections, and rational explanation must always be waylaid by the absurdities of the real world.

In "Cleopatra's Sister," she skillfully weaves together those two strands -- the rational and the random. There are two kinds of people in this book: those, such as Maureen and Howard's ex-lover, Vivien, who are incurious about the world and unquestioningly accept what happens to them; and those, such as Howard and Lucy, who must try to understand why the world is the way it is.

But Lucy's and Howard's efforts to take control of their lives sometimes backfire. In separate moments of great stress, each thinks that the absurd twist of fate visited upon them is unsurprising. Lucy even thinks, "This place has been waiting for us all our lives."

Into the middle of these two English lives comes Callimbia, a country Ms. Lively has invented and placed between Egypt and Libya. She gives it a history and an unstable contemporary political situation that unexpectedly changes Lucy's and Howard's lives. Ms. Lively makes Callimbia sound mythical: "It is all time and every time; it is impervious and ambiguous."

For the first part of the book, these three strands -- Lucy, Howard, and Callimbia -- are separate, though toward the end of that section you can see them coming together. Besides making for enjoyable reading, this device is the perfect vehicle for Ms. Lively's ideas about random events bringing together unconnected people and places.

As usual, Ms. Lively has created appealing characters and built a solid sense of place, this time completely from imagination. That a few twists of plot require unusual suspension of disbelief is no barrier to enjoyment, and in this novel may be appropriate. And Ms. Lively frequently brings in delightful asides about the individual and history, or the absurdities of life in the city.

"Cleopatra's Sister" is a rare achievement: a book to enjoy as well as to make you think.


Title: "Cleopatra's Sister."

Author: Penelope Lively.

Publisher: HarperCollins.

Length, price: 282 pages, $20.

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