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Book Review: The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey

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I had loved Margot Livesey’s novel, Eva Moves The Furniture, with its chilly, otherworldly magic, and so I was excited to see that her latest, The House on Fortune Street, was now out in paperback. I had heard that this new novel was one of those “multiple viewpoint” novels that shifted through four separate but interlocking narratives. This interested me because I teach creative writing craft, and write a blog on the subject, and so I’m always looking to see whether an accomplished author can pull off a difficult structure like this. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The House on Fortune Street begins in the viewpoint of Sean, Livesey’s Keats-addled graduate student, who proves remarkably warm, human and funny. I found myself laughing aloud at Sean’s acute and often lovelorn observations. Livesey is nothing if not an excellent prose stylist, and can tear off with aplomb a line such as Sean thinking that, “If anyone was going to write a bad play about his favorite poet, then it ought to be he.” I was so charmed by Sean that I was sorry to leave him when I reached the end of his section.

This is always my complaint with novels that are broken up into separate character viewpoints. I find that I often grow attached to one viewpoint only to be forced to leave it for another. This, though, I am happy to say, is one of those rare novels — like Julia Glass’s Three Junes — that gets it right by immediately moving deeper and darker with its next character, Cameron, modeled on Lewis Carroll, who expresses his yearning for young girls through photography.

Interestingly, Livesey renders Cameron in the first person, though the rest of the novel is in third. This felt to me like the right choice because we readers can feel deeply Cameron’s inner turmoil as he tries to be decent despite his wayward impulses. I will not give away what happens in the rest of the novel. Suffice to say that the plot moves through the slow revelation of deep secrets over many years, which gives it the engrossing and mysterious feel of real life, as complex human motivations are only guessed at, and the truth may be revealed only years later.

I had the opportunity to interview Margot Livesey recently for my blog, and I asked her about her intentions in adopting this structure. She said, “Maybe it’s part of getting older that so many of the stories going on in my own life keep changing as new information shows up. I wanted to mirror that process in a novel but still tell a complete story.”

That indeed was how the novel felt, with its slow, complicated revelations of the human heart. In this way, The House on Fortune Street seemed to me a good antidote to the constant “reality show” of contemporary culture, where instant celebrities air their dirty laundry on talk shows, and nothing feels quite real. It is interesting that an entirely fictional novel like The House on Fortune Street can, in the end, feel more like real life than much of what today is presented in the media as true.

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