Thursday, July 30, 2009

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - Review

Hardcover: 232 pages

Faber and Faber (Aug 26, 2008)

Orange Prize shortlist 2009

From the back of the book:

"Exploring family, friendship, and love, Molly Fox's Birthday is above all a novel about identity, calling into question the ideas that we hold about who we are; and showing how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined."

An unnamed playwright narrates the story over the period of one long day, summer solstice as it happens, June 21. It also happens to be her friend Molly's birthday. The writer is using Molly's home in Dublin while Molly, a well known actress "with a velvet voice", takes a holiday in the playwright's home in New York. It's a story about knowing and not knowing the people we trust and call friends, lifelong friends. It's well done and shows how one small remark can throw sudden light on everything we know about someone and make things fall into place about their personalities, or quirks and preferences. We all come to realize in our lives that family members are often unknowable while we're young and even difficult to know well when we age and begin to lose them. Then we often have as family those we've chosen to be around us as friends. But Deirde Madden is here to shows us that the relationship we have with even close friends can be based on a few small bits of information only.

Molly hates her mother but is it really warranted? And she has a strong aversion to any reference to her own birthday, and it's not about her age, it's about something so deep she won't talk about it. We often accept our friends fears and eccentricities, often accomodating them without knowing what the cause is. After some years Molly does tell her friend the playwright why she feels that way but she allows no discussion of the subject, not even from her own brother, who feels quite differently. All the information we have about a friend is what they've told us. While they don't usually deceive us deliberately, they leave a lot out because well, it hurts. Things come out in bits over time. The question is obliquely raised too What do I really mean to this person? If I'm their best, longest, oldest etc. friend, why are there parts of themselves they haven't shared with me. For as our narrator says, they are always things we hold back.

Our playwright had planned to write all day and just when ideas start to form, she's had to deal with another person who's stopped by to ask about Molly. She meets people who she is surprised to find are part of Molly's life but not part of her own and she learns a few things about her friend. She has this lovely day of long summer light to sit and think too. An easy read and a quiet story but good and very thought-provoking. Four stars out of five.

From the London Observer about Madden's writing in general:

"Madden's achievement is to make partial revelations about obscure lives as gripping as a thriller. Her style is passionate, emotional, but never obvious and does not admit a single cliché or badly written sentence."

Deirdre Madden's novels include The Birds of Innocent Wood, for which she was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize; Remembering Light and Stone, Nothing is Black, One By One in the Darkness, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and Authenticity. She lives in Paris.

Orange Prize 2009

Molly Fox's Birthday is the third of the six novels shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize that I have read. I regularly find very enjoyable books among the nominees, including those on the longlists. And while I don't always favour the actual winner, this year I was pleased with their choice of Home by Marilynne Robinson.

The shortlist:

Home***** by Marilynne Robinson (winner)

The Invention of Everything Else**** by Samantha Hunt
Molly Fox’s Birthday**** by Deirdre Madden

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (currently reading)

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (tbr)
Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

The longlist:

A Mercy****+ by Toni Morrison

The Lost Dog**** by Michelle de Kretser

The Household Guide for Dying by Debra Adelaide (tbr)

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold

Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans
Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo
Strange Music by Laura Fish

Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
(may read)
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
(may read)
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Orange Prize Reading Project

Which have you read and can you recommend them? Any plans to read titles from either list?
Would you rather have seen another book take the prize? Have you read any other books by Deirdre Madden?

Feel free to leave links to any you've reviewed, I'd love to read them.


  1. I was on vacation :) and I am back :)

    ok So I went to Bombay to my parents place :)
    There I visited this nice bookstore and saw "A mercy"! Yeah I remmebered your review.. and picked it up :D

    And I have bought other books as well :) I will write a post on it later... I am so tired :((

    I will let you know if I like the book - I am sure I will like it :)

  2. Hi there, I just stumbled upon your blog and I really like it. It's a lovely blog:) I'll come again.

    I just started my own blog, feel free to check it out:

    Have a nice day,


  3. I read the entire Orange short list and Wilderness was my favourite by a long way - but it is a bit sad, so not for everyone.

    A lot of people loved Burnt Shadows and although I enjoyed most of it, I hated the ending.

  4. I've been reflecting a lot lately about how we really don't know our parents like we think we do and this book sounds like it fits well with that theme. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for your review.

  5. I've read a few reviews of this one and it seems to be getting good marks. I'm hoping to read it at some point.

  6. I nearly bought this yesterday, I wish I had now.

  7. Listened to "a mercy" narrated by Toni Morrison and loved it. I was disappointed by "The Invention of Everything Else." I thought Hunt bit off more than she could develop. Have several of the other on Mount TBR and will have to move them up the pile!

  8. I too also find something good from the Orange List.

    So far I have read Burnt Shadows, Scottsboro, A Mercy and Blonde Roots.

    I enjoyed all of them

    I have The Personal History of Rachel Dupree on my TBR list and a couple of the other books will probably make it to my TBR list.

  9. I have Burnt Shadows coming up in the fall for my book club and I am very curious about Scotsboro. Perhaps I'll add this one too.

  10. I recognized the title, but didn't know what this one was about at all. Your review has me curios though, and I am adding it to my list.

  11. I tried to order this before the OLP were announced but it was taking too long and I ended up canceling my order. I need to go find it again. Glad you enjoyed it.



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