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The Best Intentions

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

The House on Fortune Street

by Margot Livesey
Harper, 2008

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

                        Robert Frost, “The Secret Sits”

One morning, shortly after moving out to California, I was driving at about 40 mph through a stretch of Highway One in Pacifica when a large wooden crate fell from a landscaping truck in front of me. Having a small car that couldn’t have cleared the crate, I swerved to avoid it. My car couldn’t handle the quick maneuver, the crate clipped my bumper, and the next thing I knew my car glanced off the highway divider and I was rear-ended by the driver behind me. Highway patrol arrived and interviewed the other driver, then came to my car and asked why I had been driving so erratically. “It was the crate. I tried to avoid hitting it.” “What crate?” The other driver hadn’t seen the crate; her story was that I drove like a drunk. The officer could tell I wasn’t drunk, but could find no sign of the crate. Perched between our two stories, our two points of view, he assigned equal blame to each of us and sent us on our way. Viewpoints collided, scattered the story’s truths along the road, and left it up to the officer to try to put all the pieces together.

Margot’s Livesey’s latest novel, The House on Fortune Street, is set in contemporary London, with occasional forays into the recent past, the British countryside, Scotland, and even, briefly, New York. The novel is quartered, with each slice of its pie devoted to the point of view of one of its four characters: Cameron, his daughter Dara, her friend Abigail, and Abigail’s boyfriend Sean. Except for a hiatus from this style of shifting viewpoints with her PEN/Winship Finalist Eva Moves the Furniture (2002), Livesey used multiple points of view to great advantage in her previous works. In both Criminals (1996), a novel about an infant’s kidnapping, and The Missing World (2000), about a man who takes advantage of his ex-girlfriend’s amnesia to insinuate himself back into her life, the alternating viewpoints submerge the readers into the characters so completely that we almost want to scrub our skin clean when we realize we’ve come to love the lonely woman who decides to keep a baby that’s not hers, or when we feel sorry for the dumped and lonely boyfriend who’s just telling a few little lies to ease his girlfriend’s recovery. No harm done. And after all, the girlfriend – she’s no treasure. Look how self-involved she is! And the baby’s father left her in the bathroom stall, just walked away! Why shouldn’t the baby go to someone who might love her? And there it is – the shifting point of view perfectly executed to expose every angle of a story till we’re left with the impenetrable pit of truth that there are no saints or sinners, only lots of flawed people.  

The House on Fortune Street begins in Sean’s perspective with an opening paragraph that is subtle yet firm in its establishment of the novel’s overarching theme:

The letter came, deceptively, in the kind of envelope a businesslike friend, or his supervisor, might use. It was typed on rather heavy white paper and signed with the pleasing name of Beth Giardini. Sean read the brief paragraphs twice, admiring the mixture of courtesy and menace. Perhaps it had escaped his notice that he was overdrawn by one hundred and twenty-eight pounds?

The gentleness of Livesey’s prose, the way she playfully deposits deceptively and menace into the paragraph to make the reader suspect the worst, then, oh … just an overdrawn notice. However, Livesey has opened the door to the central inquiries that appear throughout the novel – are people menacing or just politely and obliviously going about their lives? Even more importantly, what are the consequences of such polite or menacing acts? In this case, all dramatic roads lead to Dara’s suicide.

Sean, a thirty-something with a tendency to second-guess himself, lives in the house on Fortune Street with his girlfriend and the home’s owner, Abigail, and his downstairs neighbor Dara. Livesey deserves credit for making Sean, a character who could have easily tipped into a pathetic cliché, funny and wise enough that you find yourself saying, “Poor sap! Wonder what he’s going to do next.” Mail proves unkind to Sean: first an overdrawn notice from the bank, then an anonymous letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and, in the end, the remains of Dara’s suicide note. Sean longs for the good old days when he was happily married to Judy in Oxford, when he wasn’t cuckolded into reading stacks of bad plays for Abigail’s theater, when he wasn’t forced by an overdrawn bank account to ghostwrite books about euthanasia, and when he was making progress on his dissertation on Keats. Livesey has given each character a literary touchstone: Sean’s is Keats, who looms in Sean’s subconscious, an angst-producing apparition. Abigail and his advisor urge Sean to make progress on his dissertation, but he feels there’s nothing original left to say about Keats. What he will do with his life if he doesn’t finish his dissertation is a question he fears facing.

Disappointingly, there are moments when Sean’s touchstone becomes a touchboulder, particularly when he’s alone and the fires of his angst need stoking. These moments strike an almost professorial chord, a chord definitely not in Sean’s range.

As he put down the phone, he found himself thinking, once again, about Keats. During his final illness in Rome, the poet had asked his friend Severn, over and over, to give him laudanum. He could not bear to open Fanny’s last letter, for fear the emotion would destroy him, but throughout those feverish days and nights he kept hold of a carnelian she had given him, passing the smooth white stone from hand to hand.

As he replaced the phone, he remembered a conversation he’d had with Georgina [Sean’s advisor] about Keats’s attacks of jealousy. In May 1820 Fanny Brawne had gone to a party, unchaperoned, and Keats had written her a series of anguished letters … You could not step or move an eyelid but it would shoot to my heart – Do not think of any thing but me…

Though Sean is sinking beneath his misgivings about the direction of his life, he does occasionally lift his head and notice that his downstairs neighbor Dara does not look good. Something is amiss, but Sean suffers from polite intentions not acted upon. Like many characters in Livesey’s novels, Sean has a keen intuition for detecting disquiet in those around him; however his radar becomes so distracted by the clutter of his own life that he fails to do anything to help Dara:

As for Dara, he forgot about her until one afternoon, while he was proofreading the transcript of an interview, a loud thud came from downstairs. What was that noise? Did she need help? In the ensuing silence he was struck by how quiet she had been recently, and that he couldn’t remember the last time he had smelled her cooking. But there was no further sound, and he went back to checking his pages. He would knock on her door tomorrow.

When Sean finally knocks on Dara’s door, he discovers her dead body. He makes all the right phone calls, then flees London and his failed relationship with Abigail, but not his guilt. The ante has been upped on his angst and I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Keats strikes once more to, but this time Livesey’s finds the right notes. Sean finishes reading an email from his advisor that urges him to reconsider his decision to abandon his dissertation, then realizes that “he was finally learning what Keats had meant when he claimed that soul making was the main business of the world.”

A potential downside of switching narrators is that readers will form different levels of attachment to each character, preferring one to another, then having those biases color their involvement with the novel. A writer worth her salt like Livesey anticipates this downside and makes each character so rich, so unique, that readers forget to mourn the character they left behind and relish the new one. Not only does the next section switch narration to Dara’s father, Cameron, but Livesey also switches from a close third person to a first person point of view. We follow Cameron from pivotal scenes in his youth through his marriage and subsequent fatherhood, through his wife’s discovery of a shameful secret and his banishment that follows, and finally to one of his last moments with Dara before her suicide, where they connect in spite of their past estrangement. Was it necessary for Livesey to switch to a first person narration to have the reader connect with Cameron’s story? I don’t think so, but it did increase the need-to-scrub-my-skin factor when I realized that I was going to have to live in the mind of a man who has a fetish for pre-pubescent girls: Cameron befriends young girls, mentors them, and photographs them in mostly innocent poses.

Cameron’s particular literary touchstone, then, is Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. While the insertion of Dodgson’s dark history with pre-pubescent girls reads like necessary backstory for readers who aren’t in the know, it keeps politely to the background for most of Cameron’s story. Livesey deftly brings Dodgson’s parallel history forward at a key moment in Dara’s section of the novel when Cameron takes her to an exhibit of Dodgson’s photographs of young girls. When Dara becomes repulsed, Cameron spares her the truth about his past and offers her a less painful reason for why he had abandoned their family: he was still suffering over the loss of his younger brother that occurred when he was a boy. Dara buys the lie, but both she and Cameron know that there is no repairing the damage done long ago. Then, at the halfway point of the novel, just as we’re ready to say farewell to Cameron after Dara’s suicide, his friend Davy chides him: “Of course you’re to blame, but you mustn’t be greedy. You have to share the blame with Dara’s friends and colleagues, with her mother and her boyfriend, with her own fragility.” As in her other novels, Livesey has set perfectly polite yet inattentive characters at play in their own fields, but all the while they circle one more profound story that they can’t see until it’s too late. There’s the menace.

In October 2003 The New Yorker published “Jumpers,” by Tad Friend, an unforgettable article about people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge to commit suicide. It included interviews with survivors who spoke openly about their desire to commit suicide, about how it was a desire that took hold of them and would not let go. The third section of The House on Fortune Street is told in Dara’s point of view, yet there is little sign of a suicidal obsession taking hold of Dara’s thoughts. It’s one thing for a writer to try to subvert a reader’s expectation; it’s another thing entirely for her to undermine her characters by making their actions unbelievable. Yes, we learn how Dara’s suffers feelings of abandonment, how she has relationship difficulties with men and women, and how she despairs when people lie to her – but she holds a job, has friends, and has hope for a happy future with her boyfriend Edward. We are not one of the polite yet inattentive masses; we are readers who care about Dara because Livesey has taken us to this precipice and we deserve more truth here. The following excerpt, from just before the end of Dara’s section, speaks in a meaningful way about her despair, but fails to convince me that she’s suicidal. Dara and her father visit a photography exhibit where she is surprised to see a lover’s portrait of two women she works with:

If the photograph was true then Joyce and Halley’s behavior at the center was a lie. If her father loved her and Fergus and their mother, then his leaving was a lie. Or if his leaving was true, then the first ten years of Dara’s life had been a lie.

She blinked, shutting him out, letting him in again. But it’s not all lies, she reminded herself. Feelings change; change can be for the good. If I hadn’t stopped imagining I was in love with Kevin, and Edward hadn’t realized his mistake with Cordelia, he and I couldn’t be together. Not everyone can be like Jane Eyre and meet the love of their life at eighteen.

Yes, Dara is being related to Jane Eyre. Livesey doesn’t quite trust us to remember pertinent details of this novel, so we are treated with a few well-placed but scholarly plot summaries. But is it really important that Dara’s Rochester, an actor named Edward, lives on Thornfield Road, just as Rochester lives in Thornfield Hall? No. The important details are that Dara falls in love with Edward, then discovers that a girlfriend and their daughter complicate his life. He’s unhappy, and wants to leave them and move in with Dara. Dara believes him and plans for a day that never comes, a day when his intentions convert themselves into her happy future.

The book ends with Abigail’s point of view. Frankly, after my disappointment in Dara’s story, I didn’t expect much from Abigail’s section. Sean and Dara’s story told me more than enough about Abigail: she is the owner of the house on Fortune Street, a cheating girlfriend, the ambitious owner of a small London theater, a skinflint, and a woman who proves inattentive to her best friend when she needs her most. But Livesey sets me straight. Abigail is our Pip, her life is a wonderful unraveling of Great Expectations, and I came to love her for it. Happily, other than a brief bio of Dickens told by Abigail’s grandfather and a conversation about between Dara and Abigail about the novel’s alternate endings, we are spared scholarly summaries of Great Expectations. In Abigail the reader has a character to cheer for, a woman who has put early adversity behind her, and, with a little help from a benefactor and a timely inheritance, manages to settle into the comfortable, middle-class life she’d always dreamed of. Abigail is not a person with time or patience for the frivolities or despairs of love. As the reasons for Abigail’s less-than-savory behavior became clearer with each turn of the page, there was a renewal in my appreciation for the power of the point of view in storytelling.

If there is one blemish in the final pages of The House on Fortune Street it is that, as in a classic mystery or Great Expectations, all outstanding questions in the novel are tidily and answered. The torn letter found by Sean next to Dara’s bedside is assembled and read to give us a definitive reason for Dara’s fatal act. We learn who sent the letter to Sean informing him of Abigail’s infidelity and who Abigail’s mysterious benefactor is. Cameron even confesses the sordid details of his fetishist past to Abigail. It’s a bit more than one ending can bear, especially given the prevailing voice of subtle politeness in the rest of the novel. But when Abigail muses on Dara’s suicide, Livesey turns us round to get a different view of what lies beyond intentions and consequences:

What wretched luck had brought her [Dara], one misty September morning, to the canal, and then, a little more than two years later to the sunlit street? Staring at the muddy water, it occurred to Abigail that she and Dara had each, in her own way, tried to deny the power of luck: Dara by her belief that childhood influences shaped your psyche and your adult life; she by her ambition and her belief that if you worked hard you could control almost everything, including your feelings. But her grandfather had been right: without luck you could dig all day.

And so we’ve reached the heart of the novel, inspected the story from every possible angle, and must throw our hand’s up and assign equal blame all around. There are no easy villains in Livesey’s world, only an undercurrent of peril that lies beneath her characters’ most seemingly prosaic decisions.

The hard irony of The House on Fortune Street is that it is Cameron and Abigail, the most self-reliant, even exploitative characters, who come out well. Sean and Dara entrusted their happiness to the care of others and paid dearly for it. Livesey, of course, could have trusted us a bit more when it came to knowing our Keats, Brontë, Carroll, and Dickens. But while there are bumps along the way, we are ultimately rewarded for placing our trust in Livesey. Thanks to her expert handling of multiple viewpoints and her subtle, steady hand at the thematic helm, we reach the pit of this story’s truth and are able to walk away touched but not scarred. Dara’s life was not taken in vain.

Karen Vanuska lives in Half Moon Bay, CA. She was a finalist in American Literary Review’s Creative Nonfiction Contest. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.

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