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Friday, September 5, 2008

Recommended Reading: "The House on Fortune Street" by Margot Livesey

Reading The House on Fortune Street brought to mind one of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's infamous quotes: "[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

In Margot Livesey's excellent novel, we see how known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns drive the characters' actions as they work their way through relationships with friends, colleagues, family, and through the search for romantic love.

The house of the title is in contemporary London. It is owned by actress and budding theater impresario Abigail Taylor, who lives there with her boyfriend Sean, a Keats scholar. Abigail's best friend from college, Dara, rents the lower level flat. Dara is a counselor at a women's center.

The events of the book run from the commonplace, such as love gone awry, to difficult subjects such as suicide and pedophilia. What is so engaging is how Livesey paints her characters like an artist paints a watercolor. In watercolor painting, multiple layers are applied over time to create a scene with depth and complexity. In the book, each character's life is similarly developed in layers as events from childhood through adulthood combine together to the book's conclusion. And as in watercolor where the artist can use techniques to keep color elements distinct, Lindsey has her characters at times withhold information from each other, leaving the others to act with imperfect information.

What also makes this book so interesting is its beautiful structure and organization. The novel unfolds in four sections, each from the perspective of a different character. It begins with Sean; then Dara's father, Cameron; Dara is third; and finally we hear from Abigail. This technique allows us to learn a great deal about each character while at the same time keeps the story surprising. It also give the book a compact structure inside of which the narrative easily flows. And, just as the characters must deal with information withheld and revealed, within this compact structure Livesey skillfully withholds and then finally reveals the full story to the reader.

The House on Fortune Street is good read and a very well written book.