Today is St Patrick’s Day, so it seems a good time to write about ‘Molly Fox’s Birthday’, by Irish writer Deirdre Madden. It’s a novel about friendship and family, memory and identity: it’s about who and what we are, how the past shapes our present, and how it affects the nature of creation, enabling writers and actors to say something about life that people will relate to because they acknowledge it as a truth.
Like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, any action takes place in the past, and the story is spread over a single day. It is the longest day of the year: Molly Fox’s birthday. And while Molly, the most acclaimed actor of her generation, is in New York, a playwright friend staying in her Dublin home reflects on the past, ponders on the way we perceive others, and wonders if we ever really know anyone. The unnamed writer (the novel’s narrator) thinks about the new play she is supposed to writing, looks back on her life, her career, and her friendship with Molly, and with Andrew, a successful TV art historian and critic.
Their lives cross and intersect like mathematical sets, but never quite connect. Yet, despite their disparate backgrounds, there are similarities. On the face of it they are well adjusted, but all three have left a life behind .and created a new persona, becoming something other than they were, so must learn to balance past and present. All three are in the public eye and need to reconcile their public image with their private self. And all three have broken relationships behind them, and brothers who are key figures in their lives. As they search for their true identities they transform their lives and use that knowledge and experience to transform life in art – but while it may reflect life, their art can also shield them from life’s emotions.
The narrator, from a large loving family in the Republic of Ireland, is expected to stay at home, get married and have a family, as her sisters have done before her. But her brother Tom, a Catholic priest who is almost 20 years older, sees she needs something more out of life and fosters her love of books and theatre, so she goes to university and breaks free of her conventional upbringing. But her family and their love still underpin her world.
Andrew has escaped the narrow confines of his Protestant Belfast home to become ‘the person he was destined to be’. He rarely talks about his troubled relationship with his parents and his brother Billy, whose involvement with a paramilitary group leads to his death. Years later, his own brush with death gives Andrew a clearer understanding of his past as he explores remembrance and its potent symbols.
Then there is Molly herself, with her beautiful voice, a chameleon who has the ability to become anyone she chooses on stage – but remains shy, inconspicuous, and almost dowdy in her private life. We never actually meet Molly, although we hear her voice on the phone towards the end of the book, and she remains something of a mystery. Cool, calm and collected, she is unable to form long-lasting, close relationships and never celebrates her birthday. Then we learn that when Molly and her brother Fergus were children their mother left them – on Molly’s birthday.
Since Molly has always looked after her mentally fragile brother, you would be forgiven for thinking that Fergus has been irreparably damaged, but it is Molly who is unable to come to terms with the past and forgive her mother. Fergus, who most people would see as a failure, has made his choices, and is happy, accepting himself the way he is, despite his problems. He offers insights into issues of memory and identity, talking about the day his mother left, and how he cried as he and Molly ate ice creams. Then he questions whether this is a true memory of what happened, or a memory of someone else’s account. He also insists his mother was no worse than spending a lifetime living a lie. People must be true to themselves, he says. And that dilemma seems to be at the heart of the novel. I’m not at all sure that the central characters succeed in being true to themselves – but read it, and see what you think.
It’s an understated and beautifully written novel, and I particularly like the descriptions of Molly’s house and garden, which are so detailed I felt I could draw a picture of them. And I liked the way Madden drew you into a world in which, just as in real life, there are no easy answers and problems are not always resolved.