What had persuaded her to buy the house, though, were none of these sensible reasons but the thought that sprang into her mind at the first sight of the address – 41 Fortune Street – that her grandfather would have liked the name. “Straight out of Dickens,” she could hear him say, straw hat rocking. The pleasure of that image more than outweighed her own faint twinge of superstition. – from The House on Fortune Street, page 275 –
The House on Fortune Street is a leisurely novel about how our past reflects upon our future, and how our relationships with others are inextricably linked to how we integrate events from our childhood.
The book is broken into four separate parts – each narrated by a different character. Abigail is an actress and playwright who immerses herself in loveless sex, protecting herself from the intimacy she knows may hurt her. Sean has left his wife and struggles to complete his dissertation on Keats. He moves into the Fortune Street house with Abigail and finds himself regretting his decisions. Dara is Abigail’s best friend from college. Highly sensitive, she works as a counselor and longs to find true love and start a family, but her questions about why her father abandoned his family when she was a young girl overshadow her happiness. Cameron, Dara’s father, is living with a secret and struggling to come to terms with yearnings he is unable to explain.
Early in the novel, a pivotal event occurs … and from this point onward the reader searches for understanding of each character’s motivation, desire, and fears. Livesey has given each character “a literary godparent” – an author who the character relates to and provides further understanding of that character’s personality. For Sean, Keats provides that role; for Abigail it is Charles Dickens; Dara relates to Charlotte Bronte, and the novel Jane Eyre; and Cameron connects with Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll).
“My grandfather thought he could learn everything he needed to know about England by studying Dickens. He said everyone had a book, or a writer, that was the key to their life.” – from The House on Fortune Street, page 258 –
Margot Livesey’s prose is gentle and probing. In The House on Fortune Street she brings her story together with patience, carefully flushing out each character and putting together the pieces of their lives as though constructing a psychological jigsaw puzzle. Thematically she explores the idea of luck or chance vs. choice, and examines the role which early childhood plays in the development of our personalities. Specifically, she gives the reader a glimpse into the complexity of women’s friendships – the intimacy, as well as the secrecy which these types of relationships engender.
I found myself deeply involved in the lives of Livesey’s characters – I grew to care about them, to wonder about their choices, and to sympathize with their struggles. The format of the novel – a series of interlocking narratives – gave depth to the story which might not have happened if told only through the eyes of one character.
The House on Fortune Street is a heartbreaking tale which deals with some uncomfortable subject matter. It is not filled with action, but requires patience and a slow reading to fully appreciate. There are no sudden “aha” moments, but rather a gradual realization and understanding of the underlying message of the novel. At times I wanted to flip ahead to get to the nitty-gritty of the story, but I am glad I restrained myself from doing so as I think I would have been disappointed that there are no easy answers in this book.
Readers who enjoy well-written literary fiction will like Livesey’s style. Written with sensitivity and compassion, The House on Fortune Street is recommended.