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This is my first selection for the 2012 Ireland Challenge at Books and Movies. Thanks to Litlove and Rebecca for the recommendation.

Molly Fox’s Birthday was on the long list of the 2009 Orange Prize. Despite the title and the look of the book cover, it’s not chic lit. It’s not about celebrating a birthday either.

The book is set on a single day, Molly Fox’s birthday, June 21st, the summer solstice. Molly Fox is a popular and gifted theatre actor. On that day, the narrator of the book is staying at Molly’s home in Dublin while Molly has gone on a trip to New York. Nothing much happens really on Molly’s birthday, a day that she doesn’t even celebrate.

The narrator is a playwright who has enjoyed acclaims at one time but is now going through a low period in her career. On this day, she is struggling with writer’s block. While she is staying in Molly’s home trying to start a new play, she is preoccupied with memories and pondering. She reminisces on her longtime friendship with Molly, who was initially propelled to fame when she performed  in the narrator’s debut play.

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Through her quiet recollections, the narrator describes how their lives intertwine with two other significant characters, Molly’s brother Fergus and their mutual friend Andrew, who is from Northern Ireland. The political events that happend during the past decades had shattered his family. A successful art historian living in London now,  Andrew is still haunted by disturbing memories. And Fergus is another personality which the narrator finds intriguing to discover slowly.

Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling that you like a book. As you’re reading, there’s a gentle push that prompts you forward, reinforcing your favor as you slowly go along… even though ‘nothing much happens’. To go beyond feeling is what I need to do now. Let me try to organise my thoughts:

First it’s the voice. Often that’s the first thing that draws me into the story. Throughout the book, the narrator is unnamed. Her voice is casual, understated, and her tone is occasionally self-deprecating: “… I was in the supporting role: ever the stooge…” For some reason, I’m instantly drawn to such remarks.

But the self-deprecation only hides a genuine search for self-worth, and a deep longing for what is true in relationships and in life. I admire her sincere quest for that which is authentic in herself and others. Like a close friend relating to you her deepest thoughts, you want to listen attentively.

Author Madden’s strategy of keeping the narrator anonymous is most apt, for we are led to discover her inner world, and appreciate the substance that makes up who she is. A name only identifies the surface, the content within is what makes it worthwhile for readers to know in a character.

Intriguingly, this is exactly what the narrator tries to do. As she struggles with writer’s block, she is also sorting out the blockages of veiled personas of those whom she thinks she has come to know, to find out what they are beneath the surface.

What appeals to me is the narrator’s insightful point of view disguised as casual remarks. Like how she recalls the first time she recognized Molly in a café, sitting nearby her and reading a book:

I did not approach Molly — what could I possibly have said? I really liked you in ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’. And what could she have replied? Why thank you very much. What would that have amounted to? Less than nothing. 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.

Café in Dublin

On Molly’s birthday, the narrator talks to three people who come by Molly’s home, Andrew, whom the narrative has not seen for a while, Molly’s brother Fergus and a well-wisher. From interactions with them, the narrator is surprised to learn that people’s outward image may well be a front hiding a very different self or intent.

From reading the quiet ruminations, I’m delighted to discover gems along the way. Like the rest of the narratives, it seems that the author has strewn them about casually. We’re free to notice and pick up. Here are a few of them:

From the narrator’s oldest brother Tom, a Catholic priest –

Eternity is a priest’s business. But we all live in time. And what I’m doing is trying to make people aware of how the two coexist… keeping that sense of eternity while being in time; and trying to live accordingly…

How the narrator describes Molly’s acting –

There was always something unmediated and supremely natural about her acting, it was the thing itself. Becoming, not pretending.

About the self on and off stage –

Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?… so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.

And this –

Sometimes, on stage, not showing something can be more powerful than showing it.

Seems like this might well be the style Madden follows in writing her book. Subtle prompting, slow revealing… and we’re led to surprising discovery alongside the narrator.

Molly Fox’s Birthday reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s novel Theatre. But this is quieter. And after I’ve finished I wonder… what have I missed now… for there are so many layers, I haven’t explored them all. First off, what’s the significance of a birthday on the summer solstice…

~ ~ ~  Ripples

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Post of similar subject:

THEATRE by W. Somerset Maugham: In Search of Reality

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