Becky mentioned a while back that she enjoyed Molly Fox’s Birthday by Dierdre Madden, so I picked it up from the library and gave it a try myself and found that I enjoyed it very much too. The novel has a structure that I like: it takes place over the course of one day, with frequent jumps back in time to describe scenes from the past. The title character, Molly Fox, doesn’t appear at all, except in a phone conversation. Instead, the novel is narrated by her friend, an unnamed woman who is a playwright. Molly is an actress, and the two met while preparing to stage a production of the narrator’s first play with Molly in the starring role. It’s a play that will make both their reputations and send them off into successful careers.
But all that happens far back in the novel’s past; in the present tense, the two women are a older (it’s Molly’s 40th birthday, or at least we presume so; she is secretive about her age, as she believes actresses need to be). The narrator is living temporarily in Molly’s house in Dublin while Molly is traveling, and she is trying to write her next play. Over the course of the day, she struggles with her writing, takes a walk into town, and unexpectedly meets an old friend for dinner. It seems like a quiet day on the outside, but all the drama is of the interior sort: the narrator spends her day thinking about her art and her friendships and also about how she and others have been shaped by their pasts.
The third main character is Andrew, the unexpected dinner guest, and a man the narrator has known since their university days when they used to take study breaks together. Andrew and Molly both have difficult relationships with their families. Andrew is passionately devoted to the arts but comes from a family indifferent to them, and his brother died a violent death at a young age. Molly’s mother abandoned her while Molly was still a child, and her brother has struggled with severe depression his entire life.
As the narrator tells these stories and thinks about her two friends, she wonders just how well she really knows them. Both of them can be secretive and reserved, but this doesn’t diminish her love or her sense of closeness to them. The book is very much about the mystery of friendship, how experience can bring people together in deeply loyal relationships, even when there is much about each other they don’t know, and also how friendships can arise unexpectedly. When Molly develops a close friendship with the narrator’s brother, Tom, the narrator has to reevaluate her understanding of both of them, as well as deal with feelings of jealousy.
The novel is also about art, its mystery and its transformative capability. The narrator spends a lot of time thinking about Molly’s acting; she is shy in regular life, but on stage, she becomes a different person entirely. There is something about the artificial quality of the theater that allows her to capture the feeling of reality, and something about the fleetingness of a play that makes seeing her act a particularly intense experience. And then there’s Andrew, whose entire life is shaped by art; he is an art historian who has begun to host successful television programs where he explains the meaning of art to his audience. There is something about his personality that works well in this medium; he is able to communicate a genuine passion for his subject. To the narrator, Andrew is all about artifice — he doesn’t seem to care about nature at all, and would prefer to look at paintings of a landscape than the landscape itself. But the “artificial” world of art is his world, and he lives comfortably in it. It’s sometimes unclear, the book argues, what is artifice and what’s real, but somehow they are inextricably combined.
This is, obviously, a thoughtful book, slow-paced but absorbing. If you like thinking about relationships and about the meaning of art, and if you like following the train of someone else’s thoughts as they try to sum up a life, then I think you will enjoy this book.