In 'Molly Fox's Birthday' There is Nary a Scrap of Lazy Writing to be Seen

by David Maine

7 June 2010

Earnest conversations, long passages of description, thoughtful interludes contemplating this or that relationship quirk -- a complex portrait, subtle to the point of tedium.
cover art

Molly Fox's Birthday

Deirdre Madden

US: Apr 2010

For much of this slim novel, very little happens. A woman, a successful playwright, stays at the home of her good friend, the Molly Fox of the title. Molly Fox is a hugely successful London stage actress; the narrator is a Northern Ireland Catholic who befriended her many years before, at the start of both their careers. Molly is currently in New York, and the narrator is in London on other business, trying to find inspiration to write a new play. Alas, this is not going well, but these difficulties are not precisely what the book is about.

As the day progresses, the narrator reflects on varying facets of the lives and friendship, as well as Molly’s troubled brother Fergus, the narrator’s own eldest brother Tom, and their mutual friend Andrew, a Northern Ireland Protestant whom the narrator met at university and has since become a well-respected art critic and media personality. This, again, is not precisely the focus of the book, although it occupies a good deal of space in the novel.

It’s all enough to fill many pages, certainly, but there is not an enormous amount of external incident. To put it in more vernacular terms, not a hell of a lot occurs, here. There are earnest conversations, long passages of description, thoughtful interludes contemplating this or that relationship quirk. Seekers of more recognizable plot twists—not just car chases and gunfights, but also, say, arguments or strong feelings, strongly expressed—might do well to look elsewhere.

That is difficult advice to give, because the story is undeniably well written, and it hints at important thematic ingredients such as loyalty, betrayal, honesty, even political violence. Is that what the book is about? Could be. But these themes are presented so indirectly, so elliptically, as to remain tenuous suggestions rather than anything more substantial.

Taking place over the course of a single day—21 June, the birthday of Ms. Fox—the author seems to consciously seek to constrain the action both in time and place. Flashbacks are plentiful, but the story remains rooted in the experiences and thoughts of a single day. A lack of chapter breaks or other divisions reinforces this. This is the opposite of a thriller: there is virtually no action, no cliffhangers to pull the reader on.

What is there is mystery. The precise, complicated and ever-evolving nature of the relationships between the narrator and her two friends, Molly and Andrew, are stripped away little by little, and subtle questions are raised in the reader’s mind. The book requires patience, as answers are provided, quietly and without fanfare, many pages later. The effect of all this will depend on the reader’s appetite for analysis and introspection, and how compelling he or she finds the intervening material.

At the linguistic level, the author packs layers of information into seemingly innocuous sentences. Speaking of an actor with whom she has worked, the narrator describes him as “an energizing presence, happy and uncomplicated, decent and warm. He was funny—not witty, wit was beyond him—but funny in the engaging, slightly silly way a small child can be funny”. This description goes on for some time. All of the descriptions go on for some time. Because they are so impeccably written, one scarcely notices, but one’s attention is also apt to drift. Another description? Oh, okay.

A fair amount of time is also spent, naturally enough, describing actors and acting and stagecraft and stage writing. “There was always something unmediated and supremely natural about her acting”, the narrator tells us of Molly, “it was the thing itself. Becoming, not pretending. It was a showing forth of her own soul, something about which she had always been fearless”.

Later, such questions about the nature of truth and falsehood, of self and artifice, become prevalent: “Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?” the narrator muses, going on to ponder whether “social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial”. Such as playwriting, for example, or by inference, novel writing. Perhaps it is these ideas, more than anything else, that form the core of the story.

Madden has a fine ear for the rhythm of a well tuned, finely worded sentence, and there is not a scrap of lazy writing to be seen. Nor are there clichés or tired metaphors. At the same time, such drama as there is is built up so slowly, in such incremental layers, that many readers will be put off (or put to sleep) long before the revelations of the final pages. Those revelations, while not exactly explosive, have a resonance that grows from the preceding recollections. Getting to them requires a bit more time and effort than it is worth, however.

Molly Fox's Birthday



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