Family, friendship, self-knowledge, the theater—a successful playwright ruminates on all this and more in a haunting novel, finalist for the Orange Prize, from the Irish Madden (Authenticity, 2005, etc.).
The unnamed 39-year-old narrator is in Dublin, housesitting for her best female friend Molly Fox, who’s on vacation. Molly is considered the finest classical stage actor of her generation, and it is she, along with the dramatist herself and her best male friend Andrew, who form the core of her reflections on this June day. There is nothing static or inert about these reflections; on the contrary, Madden moves with ease between potent memories and the day’s events (they include four surprise encounters) to create a pulsing, throbbing story. It was the dramatist’s first play that launched Molly’s and her careers; the women have been close ever since, though their backgrounds are quite different. While the dramatist comes from a large, loving Catholic family in the North, Molly was abandoned by her mother on her seventh birthday and invests enormous energy in caring for her deeply depressed brother Fergus. Andrew, too, a friend from college days, had a hard childhood, a grim Belfast home with a brother, since murdered, who was a Protestant paramilitary; but, like the women, he has flourished, becoming an art historian famous for his TV appearances. The day is strung together with a series of small epiphanies: Molly, compassion itself, nonetheless has a predatory streak; Andrew has attained a “moral knowledge,” as has Fergus. And what of the playwright, who has twice shied away from marriage? Is she as resistant to intimacy as Molly is? This is left unresolved, and that’s a disappointment. Though two late revelations of unrequited love suggest a Chekhovian moment, it’s the erstwhile Dubliner Oscar Wilde who’s the novel’s presiding spirit, fittingly enough for a story rich in insights into acting, playwriting and the transformative power of theater.
Madden’s low-key approach to celebrity is one more part of this novel’s singular charm.