In which Jill reviews a modern book. By a woman. For the first time ever in 2013: A Review of Margot Livesey’s The House on Fortune Street*

house on fortune street coverMy boss gave me this book to read sometime in early 2012, before we started Postcards from Purgatory.  I never thought I would have it over a year before I got around to reading it.  I remember when she first gave it to me I was a bit suspicious that it was going to be “chick lit” based on the blurb on the back, but my boss stays completely away from that genre of fiction, so I figured there was more to it than the description.  The description says that the two main characters, Abigail Taylor and Dara MacLeod, are university friends who have very different careers in London but still manage to remain “inseparable” (which isn’t exactly true once you get into the book) as the years go by.  The hook on the back is that “tragedy is about to strike the house on Fortune Street.”  Is it chick lit?  Is it mystery/horror?  Is there a vampire living in the basement apartment on Fortune Street?  I guess we’ll just have to read and find out!

This is a novel in four parts with each focusing on a different character.  The first part focuses on Sean, Abigail’s boyfriend; the second on Cameron, Dara’s father; and it isn’t until part three that we focus in on Dara, and Abigail gets part four.  This book is much more than a tale of a friendship between two women.  The publisher didn’t do it justice by having the blurb focus on Dara and Abigail.  In trying to reel in readers who prefer to read about women, it limited its audience, in my opinion.  I found Sean and Cameron to be quite well-drawn and sympathetic characters.  I would even go so far as to say that I got to know them better than Abigail and Dara.

The main storyline takes place in London in the approximate present day.  The book was published in 2008 and at one point one of the characters references recent past events as having taken place in 2003.  Generally dates are not mentioned, though Cameron will mention dates occasionally in his section.  In the present, Abigail and Sean are living together in Abigail’s house and Dara has recently moved into the basement flat.  Dara has a boyfriend named Edward who has a “complicated situation” with a former girlfriend who he lives with and with whom he has a child.  I think you guys can all guess where this is going.  Right.  Nowhere good for poor Dara.  But Dara’s romantic entanglements are just the beginning in this lovely novel.  (And now who sounds like she is writing a blurb for the back of a book?)

Sean’s section focuses on the present day and briefly goes into the beginnings of his relationship with Abigail.  He is a disillusioned academic, working on a never-ending Ph.D. on Keats, and also taking on various writing projects on the side with a friend of his named Valentine.  He is married when he meets Abigail and according to him she eventually wears him down and he falls in love with her and leaves his wife.  In the course of present-day events, he goes to a meeting with his mentor and inexplicably (even to himself) quits his Ph.D. program and begins a new project with Valentine, a manual on euthanasia for a society that promotes such things.  This project affects him quite profoundly.  He meets with many people who have helped loved ones commit suicide.  It is likely that one of the reasons he gets so involved in this project is that Abigail spends so much time away from home—she is an actress and has started her own touring theatre company.  He finds a note on their door one day intimating that Abigail is cheating on him.  And he begins to notice things.  Lots of things.  And all of a sudden his happy life is collapsing around him.

Part two is first person with Cameron, Dara’s father as the narrator.  His story is mostly in the past.  It details his growing up in rural Scotland, the loss of his brother Lionel in a rugby game, his strange friendship with friend Davy, his marriage to Dara’s mother, and the strange, sad reason it breaks up.  Cameron’s section was probably my favorite.  His story is the most linearly-presented, and this novel tends to jump around in time a bit.  Usually I enjoy a good non-linear narrative, but this story, I think, does best when it’s told beginning-to-end.  We really get into Cameron’s head, and know everything about his motivations and feelings.  He is the character most in-touch with himself, probably because he’s thirty years older than the other three characters, and has had time to sort himself out, whereas the others are in the midst of making all the mistakes Cameron has already seen played out in his own life.  Livesay could have made Cameron the villain of the piece, but she does not.  She portrays a complex character who loses his family while trying to do the right thing, or rather trying not to do the super-duper wrong thing he kind of really wants to do.  It’s unfortunate he is unable to open up to his daughter, because it could have helped them both out.

Part three belongs to Dara.  Poor Dara.  She just reeks of tragedy.  Dara is a therapist at a women’s center that is full of interior strife.  She is unlucky in love and definitely has abandonment issues, thanks to her father leaving her family when she was young.  What she doesn’t know is that Cameron never wanted to leave.  He never wanted to lose touch with Dara or her brother.  It was an absence mandated by Dara’s mother to punish Cameron for transgressions that never quite happened (No, I’m not going to tell you—read the book for yourself).  Dara’s section is pretty depressing—I could see the ending of her relationship with Edward coming a mile away, but that didn’t make it any less awful when it actually happened.  Dara’s section, not surprisingly, overlaps quite a bit with Cameron’s.  Whenever those two interacted, I just wanted to reach into the book and shake both of them, say, “Would you two please just talk, really talk to each other?  It would heal so many wounds.”

Part four is Abigail’s.  It’s a good thing we spend time with Abigail, because after reading all about her from the point of view of her best friend and her boyfriend, I sort of hated her.  But then I learned that she grew up as the daughter of transients, always moving from one money-making scheme to another.  Eventually she decides to get out of their life and gets a job waitressing and an apartment and puts herself through high school, and then college.  She finds a second home with Dara’s family and discovers her life’s passion: acting.  She goes off to New York to act, and ultimately returns to England to nurse her father, who has a brain tumor, on his deathbed.  Through it all, Abigail has a string of casual relationships, in start contrast to Dara, who throws herself headfirst into every romantic entanglement she has, almost breaking herself when the relationships inevitably end.  Abigail’s first serious relationship is with Sean, and after learning her history, it’s no surprise at all that she screws it up completely.  By the end of her section I did not have quite as much antipathy to Abigail, and her guilt over her emotional abandonment of her best friend is quite touching, though kind of useless after the fact.  She is a very self-absorbed person, but at the same time she sort of had to be: no one else was watching out for her when she was young.

So the thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the thing that happens at the end of the first part of the book, but really at the end of the present day story line.  Beware, there be spoilers ahead.  Okay, you’ve been warned.  The tragedy that strikes the house on Fortune Street is that Dara commits suicide.  She learns that Edward is never going to leave his “former” partner because she sees her on the street, pregnant, presumptively with Edward’s second child.  Livesey never goes into Dara’s reasoning behind her suicide, other than at the end of Dara’s fragmented suicide note.  She says in the only letter she has ever addressed to both of her parents, “By the time I left the pub I knew what I was going to do.  I promised myself I’d wait for a month to make sure.  Every day I thought about whether there was any alternative.  There isn’t.  This is the only door I want to open (309).”

One last component of the book that I loved was how Livesay gave each of the four characters English authors with whom to identify.  Sean, of course, gets Keats.  Cameron has Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson.  Dara has Charlotte Bronte, though she focuses more on Jane Eyre than on the author.  And Abigail gets Dickens.   I don’t know enough about Keats’ life to see parallels in his life and Sean’s, though in my brief Wikipedia search I learned that Keats was a medical student, hated it, and eventually dropped out to write.  Sean hates graduate school and eventually leaves to write.  Lewis Carroll, like Cameron, had something of a strange relationship with children, and Cameron identifies with him very profoundly.  Dara thinks she has found her Mr. Rochester (They even have the same first name!  And Edward lives on Thornfield Road!), and she needs to help rid him of the crazy wife in the attic.  And our Abigail is a self-made woman with lay about parents, just like Dickens.  She loves the moors, just like Dickens.  She acts, just like Dickens.  I wish I had more deep details about the lives of these authors to help me gain a bit more insight about these characters, but I don’t.  Maybe it isn’t meant to be any deeper than these superficial similarities, but I don’t know.

I finished this book at the beginning of September.  It’s definitely stuck with me, especially the tragedy of poor Dara, and her fractured relationship with her father.  I grew up not really knowing my dad, and not seeing him often.  Now I see him all the time, and am so glad that I do.  You know what they say about identical twins raised apart ending up being more similar than they would have been if they are raised together?  I feel that way about my dad.  We are so alike, and I’ve always suspected that if he had been a consistent presence in my life during my formative years I would have not ended up the way I am.  Granted, the ways I’m like him are not always good things: I have his sense of humor (good, at least I think so) but I also have his temper (definitely not good).  We both have a hard time keeping our mouths shut when people annoy us, especially in the workplace.  Anyway, the point of this self-disclosure is to be grateful that my dad and I didn’t end up with the same relationship as Dara and Cameron: each needing the other so desperately but unable to connect on the most basic level.

*Okay, I acknowledge that I also read Charlaine Harris’s last Sookie Stackhouse book this year, which is also a modern novel written by a woman.  The difference between Dead Ever After and The House on Fortune Street is that I’m not ashamed that I read the latter.

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