This summer, a friend of mine attended the Kenyon Review Novel Workshop. She told me that The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey was on the list of prep reading and was an interesting study in structure. With such a recommendation, I couldn’t wait to read it.
And, indeed, the structure is “interesting.” The book consists of four sections, each one focusing on a different character—first, Sean, a Keats scholar who quits his marriage in order to be with Abigail (stay tuned) and then his dissertation work in favor of writing a book on euthanasia; next, Cameron, a man with pedophiliac urges he doesn’t act on; then on to Dara (Cameron’s daughter), a sensitive psychologist and would-be Jane Eyre who falls in love with an already married father-figure; and finally Abigail, Dara’s fiercely independent best friend. The book is ultimately about Abigail and Dara and the way that their father-figures, or lack thereof, shape the course of their adult relationship patterns.
The idea of dividing a book into sections and allowing each section to follow a different character is itself not a unique or especially interesting structure. Where the structure gains interest is in how indirectly the sections interlock, but as a reader, I walked away feeling ambivalent. There were moments, especially when it was clear how a father-figure had impacted one or the other of our intelligent heroines, that the indirect links provided delicious space to ruminate on why one person’s actions had resulted in another’s motives. But at other times, I didn’t feel attached enough to any character to care enough to sit down and parse it out.
I think the New York Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger felt the same way but put it less bluntly:
It’s strange that this novel, essentially an exploration of how and why two grown women have remained single, begins with the stories of two men. …The book’s last two sections, in which Dara and Abigail get their turns, coordinate and cohere better as linked narratives, for obvious reasons. This raises the question: why leave them for last? Did [Livesey] want to show Abigail and Dara in the context of their menfolk so readers wouldn’t find them uninteresting, wouldn’t make the mistake of regarding these unmarried women as women entirely without men? Was she trying to place the blame for their solo status outside the female realm? Did she think they couldn’t carry the story on their own?
Schillinger leaves these questions unanswered, but you get the sense from them—as indeed from the novel itself—that this narrative offers pleasures more cerebral than passionate. The structure makes demands on you to put the puzzle together, but it does so at the expense of immersing the reader in really feeling any one character. This is a problem in a book that has love relationships at its core. For example, we are to understand that Dara gives herself wholly to her romances, but this information is delivered via conscious and explicitly acknowledged parallels between Dara and Jane Eyre. Perhaps my own passionate devotion to Jane Eyre made me judge this move more harshly than other readers might, but to me, the parallel only illuminated how little experience I was getting of what it was like for Dara to be in love. Jane Eyre (in which, as Harold Bloom has argued, the genius is the exceeding passion driving the narrative) so expertly and abundantly records the dialogues and little moments that make up Jane and Rochester’s love for each other that calling upon it in House on Fortune Street only makes the latter novel seem chilly by comparison.
Still, there was one character whose experiences made me feel moved on his behalf, and that was Sean, the character of the first section. There are some lovely lyrical moments in which Sean is drawn deeper into his research of euthanasia and surviving family members—moments in which compassion and yearning surprise him—but this thread proves a red herring. As Schillinger puts it, “In spite of his kickoff position, Sean is somewhat irrelevant to the story, a pale moon in Abigail’s solipsistic universe, slipping into ever remoter orbit.”
So what then to make of House on Fortune Street? I didn’t feel attached, and yet it would be a mistake to too easily dismiss it. In the end, its concerns are primarily and unapologetically thematic, which is not only a quality to admire for the demands it places on the intellect—too many books hit upon an engaging voice and think that’s enough—but one necessary to spark discourse. If you take the time to visit Schillinger’s review, you’ll see that she starts with a long rumination on unmarried women, their place in literature, and the reactions they spur. But, as I’ve said, I read the book as being about how paternal relationships impact romantic ones. These are just two of the several themes Livesey manages in a spectrum from which, no doubt, your own angle will determine a new refraction.