Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey

Told in four distinct sections, this novel is a powerful and affecting story centering around the way in which the characters connect and disconnect with each other, the ways in which we fail each other, and how self-absorbtion overtakes and smothers. The narrative is both set in the present and the past and the minute details serve to explain and illuminate the tragedy whose thread runs through each of the stories told between the covers.

First in the story is Sean, the boyfriend of Abigail, who owns the eponymous house. He is completely blocked on his doctoral dissertation and taking on questionable writing projects with a partner whom he doesn't respect in order to pay his share of the rent upon which arrangement Abigail insists despite the fact that he left his wife for her. As Sean and Abigail's relationship disintegrates, Sean becomes more and more fascinated by his current writing project on suicide. Wanting to discuss the project, he turns, very occasionally to Dara, Abigail's friend from university who lives in the basement flat of the house on Fortune Street.

The second section focuses on Cameron, Dara's father, who left his wife and children many years ago and who has hidden distasteful things about himself from his children. He is (or was) an amateur photographer whose kinship of feeling with Charles Dodgson is disturbing and is detailed during this section through important and defining snapshots of Dara's childhood and pre-pubescence.

The third section opens with Dara meeting Edward, her elusive boyfriend whose presence or absence mirrors Dara's feelings. Happy when she can spend time with him but miserable when he has disappeared into his other life (he still lives with his partner, the mother of his child), Dara is more similar than not to the women she counsels at the crisis center where she works, pinning her hopes on an unreliable man. In addition to the woes in her love life, Dara's working life is fully fleshed out in this section as is her adult relationship with her father, helping to create a more complete picture of Dara.

The fourth section centers on Abigail's college memories and her entrance into Dara's life, filling in the last bit of the puzzle that is this story. And while the reader has long known where the story has no choice but to go having read the climax in the first section, this final narrative wraps everything up so that it, as a whole, feels authentic and somehow understandable.

I am still thinking about the power of this one, many days after having finished it. It's an interesting novel in terms of format and aside from the jolt of trying to figure out who Cameron was after the focus on Sean, I think the four sections were successful. There's much fodder for discussion here and the writing was simply luminous. I loved the constant literary connections, often made overtly, in this book, pairing each main character with a major British literary figure. There is a somewhat desperate and desolate feel to the narratives so don't look here for a happily ever after although Livesey has managed to inject a certain small measure of cautious hope by the end. But for a searching and insightful look at human nature, our flaws and weaknesses, and the way we fail each other in and out of the many different types of love, this is masterful.

Thanks to the publisher for providing this book to me.


  1. Wow. This sounds intense. Sounds like something I'd like. Great review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  2. I read this one a few months ago and thought it was very, very good. The writing was beautiful! I think it would make for a great book club discussion book because there is so much to think about and process.

  3. I ordered this book recently, but it has not arrived yet. Your reviews makes me want to read it even more....thanks


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