Sunday, November 17, 2013

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

This fall I seem to be, unintentionally for the most part, reading a lot of the sorts of books where the first person narrator spends nearly the whole book alone rattling around an empty house lost in her thoughts and memories composing a novel that contains virtually no action and a lot of time in one character's head for better or for worse.  I have a great deal of real life book loving friends who would be bored to tears by such books.  As for me, I rather like them, as, it seems, do literary prize committees seeing as Molly Fox made the Orange Prize Shortlist in 2009 and Sanctuary Line (another recently read "thinky" book) got a long list nod for the Giller Prize in 2010.  Maybe it's because I spend rather a lot of time rattling around in my own head like said narrators so it's extra satisfying when their thoughts prove to be revelatory even if mine so often do not.

In Molly Fox's Birthday, the nameless narrator, a mostly successful playwright, is spending some time in the borrowed house of her friend, the famous stage actress Molly Fox, while she attempts to get a start on writing her next play.  Readers spend one day in the company of the playwright while she rattles around Molly's house casting about for inspiration for her new play and lost in her own thoughts of the past as she contemplates her relationships with Molly and an old college friend turned famed television art historian, Andrew Fforde.  The day in question, of course, is Molly's birthday, which also happens to be the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice.  Obviously, there's not much action, most of which involves the narrator buying food, preparing food, and eating food while she contemplates her friends and the past during the heat of a beautiful summer day.
That night she was communicating something of her deepest self in a way that is only possible for her when she is on stage.  Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?  Perhaps it is instead the truest thing about us, and it is the revelation of it that is the problem; that so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.
Despite the lack of action, I was utterly taken in by the playwright's memories and musings. The narration seems tangential with the playwright first considering Molly and her ability to manifest a character in a play with her whole self then wandering to the playwright's past with Andrew whose serious studiousness she discovered late nights in the library at Trinity, and then her thoughts drift, as thoughts might, to a dinner she and Molly shared with the playwright's brother Tom, the priest, all told in a voice that is smart but never pretentious.   On it goes as thoughts do, meandering from one experience to the next until you find that you've been enveloped in a serious and unexpectedly focused contemplation of how identity is shaped by oneself, one's experience, and one's family and how truth and reality are often more accessible and tolerable in the fiction and artifice of plays (or books, I'm betting) than in the humdrum routines and conversations of our day to day lives.  Soon you'll realize you've been caught up in the story of an author who has an unusually keen perception of the bits and pieces of character that make up a person and an uncanny knack for putting them to the page and creating a focused theme that is compelling without being too serious or, dare we say, scholarly.   
"We were talking about her work and she said that there's a kind of truth that can only be expressed through artifice.  She said that what she wanted to convey to people through her work, more than anything else, was reality.  It was a question of showing something familiar but in a moment outside time; saying, 'Here's love, here's sorrow.  Do you recognise them?' I thought it was a good way of putting it."
I won't say I wasn't occasionally aware that the course of the narrator's reflection was subtly manipulating me toward the truths Madden was trying to illuminate with her story, but on the whole the playwright's meandering thoughts flowed in a surprisingly natural way with brief interruptions for the minutia of a day spent alone with the occasional happening that served as a natural redirect.  So taken in was I by the playwright's friends as magnified by her thoughts and the very true insights she seemed to easily arrive at through the course of the day that I hardly wanted it to end.  In Molly Fox's Birthday, Deirdre Madden manages to accomplish the rare feat of both telling us and showing us just how great a deal of truth there is to be found in fiction.  Highly recommended!

1 comment:

  1. Okay, Megan. :-) I need to read this one now. I had no interest in doing so before your review.