Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden is the first purchased ebook I’ve read on my Kobo and it was an excellent choice. I want to re-read the book to see just how Madden does what she does with such admirable skill, like an athlete or dancer who makes everything seem effortless.
I found this novel engaging, engrossing, thoughtful and thought provoking. It was a terrific read. I say this upfront because this book doesn’t have the sort of one line hook that invites instant interest.
The novel takes place in one sense over a single day, the birthday of the title, which is also summer solstice, while the (unnamed) narrator, a playwright, attempts to begin a new play. But throughout the day she reminisces over her life, her close and enduring friendships with Molly Fox, an actor, and with Andrew, an art historian. Moving in and out of these reminiscences are memories of other family and friends, her brother (a priest), Molly’s brother (mentally ill), Andrew’s chilly ex-wife. Interspersed with these, the narrator goes about the business of the day, while several unexpected and revealing encounters spur further revelations.
What the novel is really about–at least for me–is the fiction of life: every person is creator and created, author and audience, living with the tension between the unknowable and the drive for integrity. What is persona, what is truth, what is truth to oneself, to others?
Throughout the novel, the narrator is continually surprised in the events she is remembering, which changed earlier perceptions of the people she knows, or in her current reflections on those people and events. The three most dominating characters, the narrator, Molly Fox and Andrew all have lives that revolve in some way around creation and the created, artifice and reality, primarily through theatre but also in other artistic forms.
As a writer, I found these themes engrossing, and highlighted on my computer (using Adobe Digital Editions) passages that I wanted to quote. Although she’s written 19 plays, the narrator feels panicked at starting another.
Sitting at Molly’s desk, there were times when I felt I had never written a line in my life, and the idea of my producing a work that any professional company would wish to stage struck me as an absurdity. My past experience counted for nothing. This feeling was in itself a normal part of the process of writing: I knew this. I also knew that for the act of writing to become increasingly difficult rather than easier with each work was logical. It would have been easy to repeat things that had been successful, to slip into stale and formulaic writing. But I wanted every time to do something new, something that would surprise the public, something that would perhaps surprise even me. I wanted to do something of which I hadn’t, until then, known I was capable. And this too was a normal part of the process. While it sometimes got me down, it was also usually what got me out of bed in the morning…No, there was a particular reason why getting to grips with my twentieth play was such a struggle and it was this: my nineteenth had been an unprecedented disaster. (p 40 Adobe Digital)
Passages like this spoke to me, articulated for me, and fascinated me. Here is another about acting that applies equally to writing:
Many actors spend years doing exactly what Molly had dismissed: they pretend to be other people. They select voices and movements that might plausibly suit a particular character, and they assume these…in the same way they might put on a costume…There was always something unmediated and supremely natural about her [Molly’s] acting, it was the thing itself. Becoming not pretending. It was a showing forth of her own soul, something about which she had always been fearless…It was all there, a whole magma of dark emotion that could have destroyed her but which she had controlled and made central to her art. (p 53 Adobe)
Madden is just as astute in writing about other aspects of life, friendship, family, sexual attraction, jealousy, being the odd one out, making a life for oneself, what can and can’t be revealed between people.