by Margot Livesey
Reader’s Choice 11/09
If I had a system for rating the books I read, Margot Livesey’s 2008 work of fiction “The House on Fortune Street” would rate a big 5 Stars. What a rare pleasure it is to find a book that has such clear and beautiful prose, an enormously engrossing story, surprising psychological insights and yet is such an easy, enjoyable read.
Livesey chose an unconventional structure for her sixth novel. “The House on Fortune Street” contains four discrete stories all involving two young women who are best friends from their university days. Abigail, an actress who owns a fledgling theater company and Dara, a therapist in a family clinic, share a house on Fortune Street in the Brixton section of London.
Livesey says her inspiration for this book’s structure came from her unusual upbringing. An only child, she grew up in a remote boys’ boarding school on the edge of the Highlands of Scotland where her father was a teacher. Everyone there had a secret, she reports in an interview, but the secret was never revealed all at once by one source. Rather, it was revealed in bits over a period of time and from many different sources. The multiple vantage points in “The House on Fortune Street” allow rich portraits to develop of the emotional lives of the two women, their lovers and their family members.
The first story, A Soft Nest, features Sean, Abigail’s live-in lover in the Fortune Street house. He is finishing up a graduate degree with a thesis on Romantic poet John Keats and complicates his life by taking on extra work ghostwriting a book on euthanasia.
The next part entitled I Mark this Day with a White Stone is narrated by Dara’s father Cameron who begins with the intriguing line “I always intended to live as an upright man.” Cameron’s gradual fall from grace is outlined in his story of the years he spent as a husband to Fiona and father to Dara and her brother, Fergus, while struggling with disturbing yearnings.
The third section, The Feast of Epiphany, covers the story of Dara and her relationship with a handsome Welsh violinist Edward whom she loves desperately. At the clinic she is competent and caring in her work with troubled clients but in her own life, she struggles with her own feelings.
The final piece, The Marshes, features Abigail’s story of her unlikely friendship with Dara and the revelations about the role Dara’s family played in the actress’s career.
Author Livesey says in remarks in the back of the book that throughout her childhood she read a book a day. It is not surprising then that she would have literary allusions in her works. They are not, however, casually dropped in. Rather, in each of the four stories, she invokes a classic writer whose work has a resonance with the featured character’s life. This design gives an even greater depth to this already splendid book.