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Reviewed by Donna Rifkind
Sunday, June 29, 2008

THE HOUSE ON FORTUNE STREET

By Margot Livesey

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Harper. 311 pp. $24.95

None of the houses in Margot Livesey's newest novel is safe or sound enough to meet the needs of its inhabitants, including the house on Fortune Street in the Brixton area of London that lends the book its title. The most durable structure here, in fact, is not a house but the novel itself, whose design unites so seamlessly with its intentions that one wants to admire it from every angle.

Livesey encourages readers to do just that by dividing the book into four sections, each with a distinct point of view. First is Sean, a Keats scholar in his early 30s; followed by Cameron, a middle-aged amateur photographer; Dara, Cameron's daughter, who works as a therapist in a women's center; and Abigail, an actress, who is Sean's girlfriend as well as Dara's best friend from college.

Although these four sections include overlapping plot points and details, their purpose is not to provide a "Rashomon"-like retelling of the same events from different perspectives. Instead, through the divided narrative Livesey intends to show us how separate these characters are -- how little, despite their proximity, they actually share -- for this is a novel that is above all about loneliness.

Sean, for instance, lives on the top floors of the Fortune Street house with Abigail, who bought the building with money she inherited from an aunt. On the surface, he and Abigail look like a genuinely happy pair: Sean recently left his wife for Abigail, who had vigorously pursued him, and for a brief time their new romance was mutually thrilling. But lately Sean has been restive and self-doubting, unable to make much progress on his dissertation. And Abigail, who has begun to insist that Sean contribute to the household's upkeep by paying rent, is rarely at home, working late hours and traveling to drum up support for her budding theater company.

In the meantime, Dara, who lives alone on the bottom floor of Abigail's house, is struggling to improve her own domestic arrangements. Though she yearns for a husband and children, she's emotionally entangled with a violinist who can't offer her more than vague promises. She spends her workdays self-confidently dispensing advice to other women about their rocky relationships, but spends too many evenings disconsolately alone.

If the future for these characters is uncertain, their pasts are even more bewildering. Dara and Abigail became best friends when they met at university (St. Andrews in Scotland), after they realized that each "had had a version of Eden from which she had been expelled, abruptly and irrevocably, at the age of ten." For Abigail, the paradise of her childhood ended with the deaths of her much-loved grandparents, leaving her at the mercy of her unreliable mother and father. Dara's sense of safety vanished at the same age, when a disastrous family camping trip exposed secrets that led the way to her parents' divorce.

Dara never finds out exactly why her father left, but the reader does, thanks to the section devoted entirely to her father's point of view. In fact, we learn several illuminating secrets about Cameron, who was raised in rural Scotland in the 1950s, an era when children were encouraged to soldier on silently during difficult times. Much of Cameron's section is devoted to his lifelong efforts to understand the impulses and emotions he was taught to bury. And although he does finally achieve a measure of self-knowledge, he's unable to share most of it with Dara, who mistakenly believes he abandoned her because he didn't love her enough.

Small wonder that these lives, built unsteadily atop traumatic childhood events, have little forward momentum. Yet the narrative never seems mired in the same ways as its characters: It keeps turning and turning, like an architectural model on a revolving pedestal, revealing something new with every spin.

And for all its melancholy, the novel leaves readers with a surprising hopefulness. Some of this arises from the pleasures of its style: Livesey has chosen every detail here with precision, from toast crumbs to paint colors, to evoke the shimmering illusion of these characters' home-based lives. For all her care, the construction feels effortless. Even the stark divisions of the book into quarters seem inevitable rather than jarring.

But the book's hopefulness has an even deeper source: the continuity of the English literary tradition. All the characters have sincere attachments to canonical British authors, going so far as to travel to their houses to observe how they lived. Sean has his beloved Keats, of course, while Dara often compares herself with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Cameron becomes absorbed with the life of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Abigail's grandfather, who emigrated from Germany, learned how to be English by reading the works of Charles Dickens, and Abigail has inherited his devotion to the author, falling in love with the house on Fortune Street for its Dickensian-sounding name.

Again, Livesey's skill keeps these relationships perfectly organic and never forced. By situating her novel firmly within the house of literature, she honors its history while adding on some elegantly appointed rooms of her own. ·

Donna Rifkind reviews regularly for Book World.


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