Deirdre Madden: Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008)

Molly Fox's Birthday

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by a new-to-me author and felt like reading everything she’s ever written. I have Guy to thank for the discovery of Irish writer Deirdre Madden. When he reviewed her novel Time Present and Time Past (here’s the link) I knew right away this would be a book I’d love to read. When I looked at her other novels Molly Fox’s Birthday tempted me even more.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is set in Dublin and tells about one day in the life of the narrator, a playwright and best friend of Molly Fox. Molly is a much-admired, famous theatre actress. She’s spending some time away from Ireland and she and her friend swap apartments. While the narrator stays in Dublin, Molly will be staying at her apartment in London.

The narrator has just started a new play and tries to overcome a severe case of writers’ block. Instead of writing, she spends the day thinking back on her life and her friendship with Molly and their mutual best friend Andrew. One little thing leads to another, one thought leads to the next. While not a lot happens during that day – the narrator goes shopping, Andrew drops in, a stranger rings the doorbell – we see the richness of a complex life unfold. A life that is as much rooted in Irish history as in the love for theater and acting. The different elements all lead to an in-depth exploration of many other themes: religion, friendship, family, acting, reality, dreams, authenticity.

I liked how she shows the world of the theater from different sides. The side of the playwright, the side of the actor, the view from a fan, and how she draws parallels. Her own brother is a priest and a lot of what he’s doing, when preaching, is acting as well. One strand of thoughts circles around how much any person acts and how much someone can ever know an actor. Until the end of the book, Molly stays an enigma. Just like she hates celebrating her birthday, she hates talking about her feelings and withdraws into her acting if someone comes too close. This doesn’t mean Molly doesn’t reveal herself. Her apartment which is carefully decorated allows a glimpse into her soul.

While the narrator thinks about this, we realize that one of the reasons why Molly, Andrew and the narrator are such close friends, is that they share this reservation. As rich and detailed as their inner lives are, they are not very explicit people and are interested in what is left unsaid, maybe more than in what is said. In the end, when someone like Molly decides to talk – it can always be to reveal something or to hide even more. She may always play a role. But that’s true of many people, only actors are much better at selling the idea of themselves they want others to buy.

It’s hard to do a book like this justice because it’s so complex and multi-layered. And because I loved it so much.

A few quotes may help to give you a better impression.

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.

My hunger for the stage at that time was intense in a way I now find somewhat alarming. I watched plays with the kind of voracity with which small children read books; with the same visceral passion, the same complete trust in the imagination which is so difficult to sustain throughout the course of one’s whole life.

Here is one of Molly’s fans telling the narrator why the theater and someone like Molly who brings so much authenticity to the stage is important in her life.

You’re locked into this iron routine, cooking and shopping and cleaning, saying things to people and them saying things back to you, and none of it meaning anything, all of it pointless. Maybe it has to do with getting older, I don’t know, I feel like I’m sleepwalking through the years, but I want to wake up. Reality, you know? Why is it so hard to find? And why do so many people not seem to notice this? Why don’t hey care? Yes, I did go to see The Duchess, and all of this was very much on my mind that particular evening. I was worn down with it all, I felt stultified. And then the play – well, Molly Fox in particular, she was electrifying. All that dullness, that unreality I’m talking about, she blew a whole through it with language, with that voice of hers; i wa like an explosion going of in your soul.

Of course, since this book is the story of one day, set in Dublin, and one of the main protagonists is called Molly, we are reminded of Ulysses. I didn’t try to dig deeper, but the connection seems pretty obvious.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is a wonderful celebration of the interior life, art, theatre, friendship and it’s an exploration of how daily life, despite the struggles, doesn’t have to turn into something dull and devoid of authenticity. There’s always meaning, you just have to look for it.