Molly Fox's Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

Another remarkable novel from Madden, who is rapidly rising in the ranks of my favorite authors. On this midsummer's day, which happens to be the birthday of the fine and famous actor Molly Fox, our narrator wakes to find herself in Fox's bedroom in Dublin. The two are long-time friends and have swapped homes for a bit while Molly does some work in London and our narrator works on her new play. It has her a bit stymied. She's struggling to find the meaning of the image that has captured her imagination and is the germ of the new play: a man holding a hare. Madden, who has written so perceptively about the artist's process is equally adept at getting to the heart of those in the theatre.

For me, as a playwright, the creation of a character is like listening to something faint and distant. It's like trying to remember someone one knew slightly, in passing, a very long time ago, but to remember them so that one knows them better than one knows oneself. It's like trying to know a family member who died before one was born, from looking at photographs and objects belonging to them; also from hearing the things, often contradictory, that people say about them, the anecdotes told . . . For me, the play is the final destination. For Molly, it is the point of departure. She takes the text, mine or anyone's, and works backwards to discover from what her character says who this person is, so that she can become them.

Questions of identity, of understanding ourselves and those closest to us drive this book, as we go through the day in Dublin. You'd think there'd be a rule against taking on a classic like Ulysses, yet Madden makes me forget I've ever heard of Joyce. She cheerfully breaks another writer's rule: don't start your novel with a dream. She succeeds by getting through the dream quickly, using the awakening as a natural introduction to Molly Fox's world, and having the meaning of the dream be so oblique that it is only when the novel is done that we fully understand it.

I enjoyed this book so much that I didn't even register that it is a continuous narrative, without chapter breaks, and that the first-person narrator remains unnamed. I loved reading about the theatre, but it is the gradual revelation of character that enthralled me. Along with the narrator, we circle deeper and deeper into the past and present of her closest friends, adding nuance and complexity with each slim layer.

One of the strange things about really old friendships is that the past is both important and not important. Taking the quality of the thing as a given—the affection, the trust—the fact that I had known both Molly and Andrew for over twenty years gave my relationships with them more weight and significance than friendships of, say, three or four years' standing. And yet we rarely spoke to each other of the past, of our lives and experiences during that long period of time.

Even on this magical day they say very little, yet much is revealed. Andrew is an art historian who has improbably become a television personality, able to drop his shyness and pedantry in front of the impersonal camera. Molly too protects herself, refusing to answer direct questions, tossing off valuable bits of personal information only in the most offhand manner in an improbably situation. She “communicat(es) something of her deepest self in a way that is only possible for her when she is on stage.” Perhaps we can only reveal ourselves in artificial situations, or perhaps we can only recognise the truth of others when they are taken out of context. I remember seeing Farewell, My Concubine and being unbearably moved by the love story, I who thought myself immunized through boring repetition to love stories. It was only in this—to me—foreign context that the emotion could reach me.

It is not only friends who move through this tale, but family as well, families abandoned or abandoning. The narrator's older brother, Tom, a parish priest, has been the great bulwark of her life, introducing her to the theatre, preserving her self-confidence as she grew into the knowledge that she was the oddball in her family. Molly cares for her damaged brother, Fergus, while Andrew is haunted by his brother, Billy. Seemingly straightforward, these relationships and interrelationships whisper through the story, shedding veils, prompting more questions.

I learned long ago that the roles people choose to play are one way to get at the core of their identity, but I'm still left wondering how well I know anyone. I also still wonder how well people know themselves. In contrast to Molly, Andrew and the narrator, we meet an old school chum the narrator runs into at the shops. As they catch up on the intervening years she thinks, “In that instant she looked like someone who had awoken from a dream, the dream that was her life, and who saw it for the first time for what it was, how far it was from what she had imagined in the past it might become.”

The book bears these weighty themes lightly, being on its surface simply delightful, with lovely descriptions of Fox's garden full of sweet peas and climbing roses, raspberries and blackberries, and an unlikely life-size black-and-white cow made of fiberglass. There is also plenty of gentle humor in, for example, the number of people who turn up at the front door to wish Fox a happy birthday and try to hide their dismay at finding our narrator instead. I highly recommend that you spend a midsummer day with Deirdre Madden, while I hare off to find more of her novels.

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