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July 22, 2009

Book Notes - Margot Livesey ("The House on Fortune Street")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Margot Livesey's seventh novel, The House on Fortune Street, drew rave reviews and finished last year on many critics' best novels of 2009 lists. The book was recently released in paperback.

A novel told by four interconnected characters, The House on Fortune Street examines the role of luck in our lives. The characters brim with life and their interactions are real, honest, and relatable. Their stories are complex yet Livesey's prose is always clear and her psychological insights into each character are fascinating.

I often ask writers I respect to recommend books for this series, and in the past year The House on Fortune Street has been suggested more often than any other work. Margot Livesey most deservedly has earned the respect of her peers.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"At its core, "The House on Fortune Street" is a study of intense relationships: what creates them, what can undo them, what they encompass, what they can alter and what they can't. Livesey probes deep into her characters; her understanding of them is profound and her ability to convey her insights powerful. By the novel's wrenching conclusion, she has succeeded in making you feel that you have been living these characters' lives along with them."

In her own words, here is Margot Livesey's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The House on Fortune Street:

My most recent novel, The House on Fortune Street, explores the intersecting stories of four characters in contemporary London and the role of luck - good and bad - in each of their lives. Sean, Dara and Abigail, who are all in their thirties, live in the house on Fortune Street. The fourth character, Cameron, Dara's father, lives a few miles away in North London. In writing the novel, I gave each character what I call a "literary godparent," a well-known nineteenth century writer, who plays a role in their story and points to the deeper preoccupations. I didn't give them a song – indeed even though one of the minor characters is musician, music is seldom mentioned. But if I had given them "musical godparents," here are some beloved possibilities.

1. "Caledonia" by Dougie MacLean

My father was a school teacher and I grew up in a boys' private school on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, a beautiful and remote place where everyone knew each other. As a teenager I was thrilled to discover cities – places where one could behave badly and no one would know. First came Edinburgh and London, later Toronto and now Boston. But I've never lost the feeling that Scotland is one of my essential homes. Although the novel is set in London, Cameron and his daughter, Dara, grew up in Scotland, and I pictured them listening, as I often do, to the song that has become Scotland's informal national anthem, Dougie MacLean's "Caledonia." With its mixture of loss, longing, and restless love, the song speaks to many people who wish they could use the word "home" to mean just one place.

2. "Quartet in G" by Debussy

I am a hopeless latecomer to classical music – my father referred to Mozart as noise - but I structured The House on Fortune Street like a quartet, each character having her or his own melody. Listening to Debussy's "Quartet in G," gave me ideas – very inchoate ones, I'll admit – about the possibilities of braiding together the different elements of the story. Also something about Debussy's music, the way it looks both backwards and forwards, remembers and anticipates, was suggestive. As an only child, whose life has been hugely enriched by long friendships, I wanted to write a novel that portrayed a long and complicated friendship between two women with very different attitudes to the past. Abigail is determined to put her childhood behind her while Dara believes that, if only she could understand what happened when she was ten, she'd be able to find the husband and family she craves. "Quartet in G" somehow speaks to these contradictory yearnings.

3. Leonard Cohen

The summer I was eighteen, I went to Paris to be an au pair, and Leonard Cohen's lonely, sexy songs – "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire" – were everywhere. Then I spent most of my twenties waitressing in Toronto, where he was a national hero. After that I largely forgot about him for two decades. Now, happily, he has reappeared for me (and many others). When Abigail, who has had dozens of lovers but never been in love, finally succumbs to Sean, I pictured her hearing Cohen's "I'm Your Man" with its witty, encyclopedic list of what the lover offers. And for Sean, I imagined a line from "Anthem" – "there is a crack in everything" - playing in a tiny corner of his brain, over and over, until he notices. I went to hear Cohen when he played in Boston this May and he was just as eloquent (and sexy!) as I'd hoped.

4. "You've Been So Good Up to Now" by Lyle Lovett

I would never want to be psychoanalyzed out of my fascination with how quickly life can change for me, and for my characters. Lyle Lovett's "You've Been So Good up to Now," with its refrain "One bad move can turn your world upside down/ It's such a shame ‘cause you've been so good up to now," might have been written for Dara's father, whose downfall can be measured to a fraction of a second. I love the way Lovett's lyrics seem so clear-sighted but not scolding. I also love (and this may only be in my imagination) the way the song suggests those existential American landscapes: the miles of highway, the single gas station. My characters suffer their loneliness in crowded, English places but still the feeling is the same.

5. "Love is Everything" by k.d. Lang

Sometimes I'm wrong about the soundtracks for my characters, and I really wanted Dara to have a cheerful, romantic song – Beyonce singing "A Last" for Obama - but she ended up with something much more adult: k.d. lang's version of Jane Siberry's "Love is Everything." Lang sings this song, with its complex twists and turns, so strongly that it's hard to believe that she won't triumph over any and all adversity. Of course I hoped Dara would, too.

6. "Burning Down The House" by David Byrne

There was a period in my life when this song was played at every party I went too. That doesn't happen now – sadly I go to more sedate parties – but the song stayed in my mind as a kind of parallel to Debussy's quartet. Byrne tells us that the boundary between the familiar and the strange is barely thicker than a sheet of paper, or – for my characters - a bed sheet. One day you leave your house, or come back to it, and everything is different. Fortune remains just as capricious as the great poets claim, and who knows when a person will find herself standing at that intersection of character and fate.

Margot Livesey and The House on Fortune Street links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
Reading Group Guide for the book
excerpt from the book

Arizona Daily Star review
The Atlantic review
Ayelet Waldman review
Booking Mama review
Bookmarks review review
Boston Globe review
Christian Science Monitor review
Devourer of Books review
Entertainment Weekly review
Iowa Source review
Los Angeles Times review
MostlyFiction review
New York Times review
Open Letters review
Playing with Words review
Publishers Weekly review
Seattle Times review
Washington Post review

The Millions interview with the author
NPR Morning Edition interview with the author
Writer's Voice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks