The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey

October 31, 2008 at 5:43 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

Thwarted desire, illicit desires, the fumbling search for lasting love, the sabotaging of happiness, both one’s own and that of others, deceit and self-justification, the thirst for exoneration and redemption – all these elements compete for primacy in Margot Livesey’s astonishing novel The House on Fortune Street.

In the first chapter, “A Soft Nest,” we meet Sean, a would-be scholar who is  struggling to write a thesis on the poet John Keats. At the same time, he is in the process of committing to his lover Abigail by moving in with her. Trouble is, he has to leave his wife Judy in order to effect this momentous change in his life:

“He knew the syllogisms of romance. He had broken his life apart for her; therefore she must be the love of his life.

He and Abigail have been having a rapturous affair. He knows he should be overjoyed when he contemplates his future with her.

But that’s not how he feels.

At one point, having recently seen Judy, Sean finds himself reminiscing about a day they spent, shortly after their wedding, exploring the Cotswolds:

“They were driving from one exquisite village to the next when, in the middle of a field of cows, they spotted a small stone church. They had pulled onto the verge and gone to investigate. The door was locked, a bird’s nest wedged in one corner, but round the back they had found a couple of milk crates and climbed up to peer through the leaded windows. Sean had never forgotten the sight that met his eyes.The narrow nave was crammed not with pews but with statues of knights, maybe eight or nine of them, lying on their tombs, hands folded on their chests, dogs or swords or, in one case, a book, at their pointed feet. How peaceful and dusty they looked. He wished he’d asked Judy if she remembered them too. It would ahve been nice to be back together, even briefly, in that pool of memory where no one else would ever swim.

The novel’s next chapter is entitled “I Mark This Day With a White Stone.” We are now introduced to Cameron MacLeod, who, unlike Sean, will be telling his own story in the first person. Initially I felt frustrated by what seemed to me an abrupt transition. I was heavily invested in Sean’s story and wanted it to continue. But this novel follows a lateral, rather than a linear, trajectory. Livesey traces the links between various characters and backtracks to their histories from time to time. Thus are they illuminated for the reader.

At any rate, my annoyance faded quickly as Cameron’s story unfolded. It became obvious to me in pretty short order that where the art of novel writing was concerned, I was in the hands of a master. (The title of Chapter Two is taken from the diary of Charles Ludwig Dodgson, who is better known to the world at large as Lewis Carroll. His presence as a reference point in this novel is crucial to an understanding of Cameron.)

The other major character in the novel is Cameron’s daughter Dara. Dara and Abigail are fast friends from their university days. While Abigail has been strengthened by the need to virtually bring herself up – her parents were absurdly feckless – Dara has been deeply wounded by a crisis in her own family that has never been fully explained to her.

I’ve been trying to think of a word to describe Livesey’s writing. I think I’ve settled on one: “crystalline.” Her prose is crystalline, utterly precise, utterly beautiful without straining to be so. The House on Fortune Street, moreover, is liberally enriched with literary allusions – from Jane Eyre to Keats, Lewis Carroll,  and Shakespeare.*

On a personal note: I recently completed a re-reading of The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers with an eye to leading a discussion of it for the Literary Ladies Book Club next week. I proceeded directly to a reading of Livesey’s novel and discovered two rather startling instances of synchronicity: in both books, a  brother’s fate haunts his sibling into adulthood. Also, in both of these novels, the spirit of John Keats permeates the narrative.

Last December, when I reviewed Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe’s delicious candy box of a book, I made reference to the phrase ludic reading, for which I supplied the following definition: “that trance-like state that heavy readers enter when consuming books for pleasure.” I definitely entered a ludic state while reading The House on Fortune Street, emerging only reluctantly at the novel’s conclusion.

What a great selection for book discussion groups this will be. I loved it!

Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey


*There’s a misquote on p. 201, where Abigail says “There’s no art to find the mind’s conception in the face.”  She identifies the quote as coming from Macbeth. It does, but she didn’t get it quite right. It should be:

“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

I wonder where this error originated, and I’m somewhat surprised that it didn’t get flagged by an editor, proofreader – or someone! A small cavil, you understand, that does not impinge on this book’s overall wonderfulness.


  1. “The question is not how to cure or how to be cured but how to live.” - The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Vickers’s book tremendously.  British novelists are particularly adept at doing this, viz. The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey and Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News, which I am currently […]

  2. The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] went unmentioned by the Times. I’m thinking specifically of Black Seconds by Karin Fossum, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, and a book that I just finished and that I’ll be posting about shortly – […]

  3. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] not least, a beautiful novel of love, loss, and all that can befall us poor mortals in between: The House on Fortune Street by Margot […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Ghost at the Table – Suzanne Berne The House on Fortune Street – Margot Livesey The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven By Water – Justin Cartwright […]

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