Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

This is my first selection for the 2012 Ireland Challenge at Books and Movies. Thanks to Litlove and Rebecca for the recommendation.

Molly Fox’s Birthday was on the long list of the 2009 Orange Prize. Despite the title and the look of the book cover, it’s not chic lit. It’s not about celebrating a birthday either.

The book is set on a single day, Molly Fox’s birthday, June 21st, the summer solstice. Molly Fox is a popular and gifted theatre actor. On that day, the narrator of the book is staying at Molly’s home in Dublin while Molly has gone on a trip to New York. Nothing much happens really on Molly’s birthday, a day that she doesn’t even celebrate.

The narrator is a playwright who has enjoyed acclaims at one time but is now going through a low period in her career. On this day, she is struggling with writer’s block. While she is staying in Molly’s home trying to start a new play, she is preoccupied with memories and pondering. She reminisces on her longtime friendship with Molly, who was initially propelled to fame when she performed  in the narrator’s debut play.

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Through her quiet recollections, the narrator describes how their lives intertwine with two other significant characters, Molly’s brother Fergus and their mutual friend Andrew, who is from Northern Ireland. The political events that happend during the past decades had shattered his family. A successful art historian living in London now,  Andrew is still haunted by disturbing memories. And Fergus is another personality which the narrator finds intriguing to discover slowly.

Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling that you like a book. As you’re reading, there’s a gentle push that prompts you forward, reinforcing your favor as you slowly go along… even though ‘nothing much happens’. To go beyond feeling is what I need to do now. Let me try to organise my thoughts:

First it’s the voice. Often that’s the first thing that draws me into the story. Throughout the book, the narrator is unnamed. Her voice is casual, understated, and her tone is occasionally self-deprecating: “… I was in the supporting role: ever the stooge…” For some reason, I’m instantly drawn to such remarks.

But the self-deprecation only hides a genuine search for self-worth, and a deep longing for what is true in relationships and in life. I admire her sincere quest for that which is authentic in herself and others. Like a close friend relating to you her deepest thoughts, you want to listen attentively.

Author Madden’s strategy of keeping the narrator anonymous is most apt, for we are led to discover her inner world, and appreciate the substance that makes up who she is. A name only identifies the surface, the content within is what makes it worthwhile for readers to know in a character.

Intriguingly, this is exactly what the narrator tries to do. As she struggles with writer’s block, she is also sorting out the blockages of veiled personas of those whom she thinks she has come to know, to find out what they are beneath the surface.

What appeals to me is the narrator’s insightful point of view disguised as casual remarks. Like how she recalls the first time she recognized Molly in a café, sitting nearby her and reading a book:

I did not approach Molly — what could I possibly have said? I really liked you in ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’. And what could she have replied? Why thank you very much. What would that have amounted to? Less than nothing. There are forms of communication that drive people apart, that do nothing other than confirm distance. But there are also instances when no connection seems to be made and yet something profound takes place, and this was just such a moment.

Café in Dublin

On Molly’s birthday, the narrator talks to three people who come by Molly’s home, Andrew, whom the narrative has not seen for a while, Molly’s brother Fergus and a well-wisher. From interactions with them, the narrator is surprised to learn that people’s outward image may well be a front hiding a very different self or intent.

From reading the quiet ruminations, I’m delighted to discover gems along the way. Like the rest of the narratives, it seems that the author has strewn them about casually. We’re free to notice and pick up. Here are a few of them:

From the narrator’s oldest brother Tom, a Catholic priest —

Eternity is a priest’s business. But we all live in time. And what I’m doing is trying to make people aware of how the two coexist… keeping that sense of eternity while being in time; and trying to live accordingly…

How the narrator describes Molly’s acting —

There was always something unmediated and supremely natural about her acting, it was the thing itself. Becoming, not pretending.

About the self on and off stage —

Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?… so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.

And this —

Sometimes, on stage, not showing something can be more powerful than showing it.

Seems like this might well be the style Madden follows in writing her book. Subtle prompting, slow revealing… and we’re led to surprising discovery alongside the narrator.

Molly Fox’s Birthday reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s novel Theatre. But this is quieter. And after I’ve finished I wonder… what have I missed now… for there are so many layers, I haven’t explored them all. First off, what’s the significance of a birthday on the summer solstice…

~ ~ ~  Ripples

***

Post of similar subject:

THEATRE by W. Somerset Maugham: In Search of Reality

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden”

  1. Oh I’m SO glad you liked this! You’re right, it is a slow and subtle book that gradually reveals rich inner resources, and comes out with startling insights. It made me want to read everything Deirdre Madden had written afterwards (and of course, I haven’t got to a second novel by her yet!). Reading your lovely review really makes me want to pick this one up again, though.

    .
    litlove,

    Yes, thanks so much for recommending this to me. This is the kind of books I like… subtle, slow revealing for a slow reader. 😉 But it’s not just the pace, it’s the depth too. And as I’ve said above, I like this kind of voice, honest, sincere, understated, but also full of insights.

    Arti

    Like

  2. I like quiet books.

    This one does look a bit chick-litty to me but voice… if the voice is right, it pulls me in too.

    .
    Ti,

    Definitely not chic lit. But, in lieu of romance, there’s the search for authenticity in relationships… equally appealing, if not more.

    Arti

    Like

  3. You write so eloquently about this book, Arti! I read it in the spring of 2010 and found myself thinking about it for a long time afterward… so much depth to this quiet novel.

    .
    JoAnn,

    Thanks … and I’m still thinking about the summer solstice ‘coincidence’. Any idea?

    Arti

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  4. Bravo! perfect itming. I got this book for my Mum and will very gently and correclty ask that I borrow it when she’s done! I’d heard of it, didn’t read it, just handed to her because she’s a GREAT reader and loves books – often running interference for me, knowing if I’d like something, too.

    However, I”m thinking of loading it onto my Nook. Yes, yes, and then carry it with me and have time to peruse, etc. (sounds like a contradiciton but when you’re traveling around, it’s great to have one “book” that holds everything. Yes, I still love books and buy them. The Nook is ingenious, actually. Booklovers can’t NOT have books. So they now buy them two ways, in two places. sigh.

    PS Still haven’t seen The Artist but now have HM intrigued and he wants to see it as well. Will report back!

    .
    Oh,

    LOL… didn’t know you’ve been patiently waiting for your chance to see The Artist. You know, there are quite a few good ones, and I’m sure your HM might enjoy even more Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman is nom. for a Best Actor BAFTA. Colin Firth’s in there too. So both of you may enjoy.
    As for Molly Fox, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it in whatever format. It’s leisurely paced, just right for travelling.

    Arti

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  5. Arti, you make this book sound absolutely irresistible. It’ll scoot up on my TBR list. Thank you. I think.

    .
    nikkipolani,

    Ha! I hear the “I think.” I’d say, go for it and see if you enjoy it.

    Arti

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  6. Arti, the books are used ranging from vintage to barely cracked. The paperbacks in that first book photo are shelved two-deep. Here’s the address if you want to plug it into google to see if you can swing by: 101 South Pine Avenue, Long Beach 90802.

    .
    Thanks for the info!

    A.

    Like

  7. This is something so new and fresh. I love books when I can actually feel the silence as the story progresses. Unfortunately not many books of that kind are made these days. I get a feeling that this one may just be that kind of book and really look forward to reading it.

    .
    theliteraryshack,

    Yes, I think you’re right to say ‘fresh’. That’s the feeling I got while reading. Hope you’ll like it.

    Arti

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  8. Thanks, Arti. This sounds like just the kind of book I’d like. Irish, theatre, writer/playwright. All the elements are there — I might have to check this one out sooner rather than later!

    .
    Jeanie,

    The Irish is a requirement since it’s for the Ireland Challenge. But I was pleasantly surprised to find all the other elements, writing, the stage, what’s real, what’s not, friendship, family etc.

    Arti

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  9. I really like the way you describe this book and what you found so enjoyable about it. You’ve made me want to read it!

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    Stefanie,

    Thanks. And do check it out. I think you’ll like it.

    Arti

    Like

  10. Having not read the book, I’m making nothing more than a guess on the basis of your review – but, the Solstice? I suspect it has something to do with perfect alignments – interior self/exterior self, particularly. Time/eternity, also, and perhaps even self/others.

    An interior solstice, a time when all the elements are perfectly aligned for a remarkable vision… Now I’m going to have to put this on my list to explore my own hypothesis!

    .
    Linda,

    Yes, of course… that makes sense, esp. the alignment of interior and exterior, the integrity of the whole self. I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing your hypothesis come to light!

    Arti

    Like

  11. As I read your review, I couldn’t help but think this might be good reading for Lent….simply in the way you describe this story….

    “Like a close friend relating to you her deepest thoughts, you want to listen attentively.”

    I always think of Lent as a time to scrape off layers in search of ‘true self,’ or maybe, because this question is tickling at my mind these days: What does it truly mean to be human?

    This book sounds like a good lens for soul-searching. Thanks for sharing.

    .
    Janell,

    Interesting… I’ve never thought of it as a reading for Lent. It’s not your typical ‘spiritual’ read. But, maybe that’s its appeal, the light and easy styling would not be seen as a treatise with a hidden message. I think it’s good for any occasion. 😉

    Arti

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  12. The writing is wonderful. I’ve been to the Gaiety so many times! I miss Dublin.

    .
    Ruth,

    That’s lovely, having actually been there so many times too. Have you written any posts on them? I’d love to read them!

    Arti

    Like

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