Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review: Molly Fox's Birthday, by Deirdre Madden

Molly Fox's Birthday
by Deirdre Madden
Picador, 2010
216 pages
Orange Prize Finalist
Challenges: New Authors, Where Are You Reading?

When I was younger, for some unknown reason  I was fascinated with the date June 21.  I loved that it was the beginning of summer and the longest day of the year.  I suppose the month of June and the number 21 signified some degree of youthfulness and freedom to me, I don't know.  I always wanted to get married on June 21 (and as it turned out, I came pretty damn close.)

Anyway.  In this book, June 21 happens to be Molly Fox's birthday.  And it is also the date that Molly Fox's Birthday takes place. (It's like Mrs. Dalloway in that it is set over the course of one day, but without the tension in Woolf's classic.) 

Acclaimed actress Molly Fox is spending her birthday in New York while one of her dearest, long-time friends (an accomplished playwright who has collaborated with Molly) is house-sitting at her home in Dublin, Ireland. Molly Fox's Birthday is written in the first person, from The Playwright's point of view.  (I refer to her as The Playwright because we never learn her name. This didn't bother me as much as I thought it would, but I admit it was a detail I might have wanted to know. And actually, there were times when I thought she might have been a he, but the book jacket says the narrator is a female.)

So, The Playwright is house-sitting, reminiscing about years gone by, and reflecting on her friendship with Molly as well as a college friend named Andrew Forde, an art scholar and critic.  The chronology is a little rocky; I never did get a solid sense of exactly how long ago in  the past all these misty-colored memories took place (at least 20 years, I believe).  The Playwright also reflects on family, particularly the interactions with siblings and the influences of parents.  Molly, The Playwright, and Andrew all have their own issues with their respective upbringings and circumstances of their lives. 

This is not a novel to read for its plot - because there really isn't much of one.  It took me about a third of the novel to become accustomed and comfortable with that.  As I began focusing more on the characters, the novel became more intriguing.  (I did catch myself reading with a writer's eye, looking for the nuances of character development.  Not like there's anything wrong with that, in my readerly view.)

Towards the last third of the novel, Deirdre Madden started to lose me a little bit.  The dialogue started getting a little too high-brow, a bit too philosophical.  (My late father would have categorized such speak as "artsy-fartsy.")  I also felt that The Playwright viewed herself as being closer friends with Molly than Molly did, which kind of made me sad for The Playwright. 

Also, there were a few too many coincidences. For example, just as The Playwright was thinking about someone, that person appeared at the door or happened to be browsing in the same shop. Once is fine.  Two and three times?  A little ridiculous and a flimsy literary device used to excess. 

Molly Fox's Birthday is about identity, about friendship, and about the passage of time.  Rather than being viewed as a novel dependent on plot, it is one that is more of a commentary on how friendships evolve and change over decades, how they shape who we are, and how well we really know those in our closest circle of friends.

Initially, I finished Molly Fox's Birthday thinking that it was just okay - not the best book I've ever read, but certainly not the worst.  But then I found myself thinking of my own friendships, particularly with the people I knew in college.  I read something (a quote? a blog post?) recently that stated that our college friends are unique, because they see us at a very pivotal time in our lives, as our foundations are forming for who we will be. (I guess this assumes we're all traditional aged college students, living in dorms and whatnot, whereas I realize that's not always the case.)

In addition, Molly Fox's Birthday made me think about friendships in the age of Facebook, and who is really considered a close friend. (It's a modern day novel, but I'm guessing its set in the pre-Facebook era.)  The random coincidences - people stopping by Molly's house and not realizing she is in New York - would perhaps be avoided, because most likely these "friends" would already know Molly was overseas. Maybe all this is a stretch and not what Deirdre Madden intended. Regardless, it's what lingers for me after finishing Molly Fox's Birthday. 

Overall, I found this to be a slightly flawed but contemplative, reflective novel.  I didn't dislike it, yet it wasn't one that I was captivated by. It's not going to appeal to everyone, which is fine.  It had its good and bad points, its ebbs and flows.

Just like most of our friendships in real life do, right?

What Others Thought:

A Book Sanctuary
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JoAnn said...

I read this last spring and realized I never did get around to writing a review. Funny, because for such a 'plotless' novel there is quite a bit I remember and still think about occasionally.... I actually like it more now than when I read it (my feelings at the time were very similar to yours).

Amused said...

I have this one on my shelf and I love books that make me appreciate my friendships so thanks for reminding me that I need to read this!