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A story told with help from literature's giants

Margot Livesey enlists the help of Keats, Carroll, Bronte, and Dickens in her latest novel.

By Yvonne Zipp / May 30, 2008



Bookworms love to imagine having real life mirror the plot of their favorite novel. What could be more romantic than, say, reliving the first encounter between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester outside Thornfield Hall? Plenty, as Margot Livesey shows in her engrossing new novel, The House on Fortune Street.

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Told from multiple viewpoints, “The House on Fortune Street,” looks at the lives of an idealistic therapist, Dara MacLeod, and her best friend from college, Abigail Taylor. The setup is deceptively simple: Abigail, who runs her own theater company, is living with Sean, an impoverished graduate student working on his endless dissertation about Keats. Dara, who rents out the basement apartment from Abigail, is in love with Edward, a violinist. But by page 60, one character is dead and the others are reeling.

Livesey (“Banishing Verona”) then rewinds the action to Dara’s childhood, as related by Dara’s dad. Dara herself covers her relationship with Edward, à la Brontë; and Abigail tells the story of their friendship at St. Andrews college in Scotland. Each section adds greater complexity and understanding, as Livesey looks at what it means to know someone profoundly – and to know the limits of that understanding.

Everyone had a book, or a writer, that was the key to their life,” Abigail’s beloved grandfather believed, and Livesey changes up her novel by having an English author preside over each section: John Keats, Charles Dodgson (aka. Lewis Carroll), Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens. This is more than a gimmick – Livesey uses each writer to provide extra resonance to her tale. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to have a copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature handy to enjoy “The House on Fortune Street.”)

First up is Keats, but Livesey is going for a more subtle effect than just yet another parroting of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” This is the Keats who was plagued by “bill pestilence,” was wildly jealous if Fanny Brawne attended a party without him, and believed that “Life must be undergone.” In the real world, the ideals of romantic love (or scholarship, for that matter) can be hard on a guy.

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