On the surface, Molly Fox’s Birthday, originally published in the U.K. and a finalist for the prestigious Orange Prize, feels miniscule in scope—it takes place over the course of one nearly painstakingly ordinary day, within the walls of a small house, largely occupied by just one character. But within these confines lie a treasure chest of memories, which author Deirdre Madden unpacks with perfect precision and which make this very quiet novel scream with importance.
It is the longest day of the summer—Molly Fox’s birthday—but Molly, a world-renowned stage actress, is not at her Dublin home. Rather, she has swapped with an old playwright friend, the unnamed narrator, who has set up shop in Molly’s cottage to work. Over the course of the day, the narrator is visited by figures important to both of their lives—Molly’s troubled brother, Fergus, and perhaps more notably, the third member of their decades-long friendship, an art historian named Andrew.
As the day progresses, the narrator thinks about her life and those of her friends in an achingly real, relatable way. She struggles with her career, particularly as compared to her more successful friend, and quietly muses on the things she once thought she might have had, like a husband and a child. Art, friendship, politics, family and especially the theater preside as pillars of various strengths in the narrator’s mind, and are dealt with deftly and beautifully. And though the narrator is the only consistent character throughout the novel, others, particularly Molly herself, look on as if from offstage.
Many writers would buckle and fail quickly without a more obvious plotline, but Madden soars, creating a mosaic of memories that is not only insightful and compassionate, but remarkably compelling as well. With much flashier competition on the market, Madden’s subtle hand is a rare and very welcome commodity.