Postal Reading group
November 2019
Notes on the book Molly Fox’s birthday by Deirdre Madden

Deirdre Madden’s book Molly Fox’s birthday, is best described as a novel on a small scale: Not only because of the length, but also because it is set over one day, mostly in one house, and with a limited cast of characters. Clearly this makes it difficult to write an engaging novel, but the author has, nevertheless, done a good job even if it is fair to say that the book won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The storyline is simply that the well known actor, Molly Fox has loaned her house in Dublin to a friend while she herself is performing in New York. While alone in the house, the friend’s thoughts turn to her relationship with Molly, and their mutual friend, Andrew. Simply put, that is the novel! Of course, the limited setting is only the cue for the friend (who’s name we don’t know) to reminisce about the nature of their relationship with the enigmatic Molly, or with Andrew. Anyone who enjoys, or was expecting, an intricate plot will be disappointed by this book, but the real point is the ‘meditation’ on the nature of our relationships with others, and what makes up our identity.

As expected from the simple outline above, this is a short book and correspondingly quick to read, although the more philosophical parts would benefit from a slower reading. As most of the book is concerned with the friend’s reminiscences, much of the writing is in a stream of consciousness style which can be difficult to follow at times. Similarly, there are sections where I was impatient for the narrative to move on, but it is nevertheless worth persevering. As much of the material is thought provoking, I did wonder if a novel like this is the best way of approaching the subject, although, of course, it does help to reach out to a wider audience than philosophy alone would.

The novel opens with an account of how the friend first met Molly, and the barest descriptions of Molly’s work and her house. Even by the end, however, Molly remains an enigma. Although this takes place on Molly’s birthday, we don’t know exactly how old she is, even if we do learn that she neither celebrates her birthday, nor wants it to be celebrated. As an actor she has very good reasons for being coy about her age, but perhaps her closest friends deserve the opportunity to mark her birthday.

What we do learn about Molly only seems to reinforce this enigmatic image: “People seldom recognise her in the street. She is a woman of average height, ‘quite nondescript’”. Later in the same paragraph: “Neutral tones suit her”. None of this tells us much, but this is, perhaps, the point as we are more interested in what the real Molly Fox is like, not what she looks or dresses like. Of course, as an actor, she can quite easily do a fairly good job of becoming anyone; harmless enough on stage, but open to misuse for dishonest ends outside of the theatre. Molly expresses the importance of really trying to understand the characters she has to play, and insists that it isn’t her on stage, while suggesting that she puts her whole self into the performance. I believe that this is a way of saying that creating the illusion is hard work, rather like someone might have to pretend to be more sociable than they really are for the sake of their friends. Thankfully most of us don’t have to do that all the time.

The questions about relationships and identity apply to Andrew too, as the narrator recalls him undergoing a thorough image change from student to immaculately dressed scholar of art history. But the question remains, did he really change into a different person, or just sacrifice some of himself in the interests of getting a job? In fact, I remember one of my university friends undergoing a similar change, but the other way round, over one summer. So complete was the transformation that I almost didn’t recognise him the following term, although, arguably, he remained the same person. I can only suggest that it was a shame that he had to sacrifice his identity in order to fit in.

I could find many more examples, but the problem is there are too many to pick out individually, although I was amused by the supposed likeness between acting and a priest celebrating mass! I don’t know if the author reaches any firm conclusions, but the point is to make the reader think for themselves, and in this she has succeeded brilliantly. While this book won’t appeal to everyone, and indeed I probably wouldn’t have chosen it myself, I recognise that it is well written and am grateful for the chance to read something different and so thoughtful.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler