Her new novel, “Actress,” explores a mother-daughter relationship burdened by fame. The narrator is a novelist named Norah recalling the tumultuous life of her mother: Katherine O’Dell, the late, great star of stage and screen. Enright weaves this fictional celebrity deep into the history of 20th-century entertainment. O’Dell once brought audiences jumping to their feet in London, New York and Dublin. As “the globe-trotting muse of writers as various as Samuel Beckett and Arthur Kopit,” she captured the hearts of a generation. Reviewing her performance as Sister Mary Felicitas, Pauline Kael praised “the twinkle in the wimple.” Her flaming red hair was iconic. A line from her dairy commercial — “Sure, ’tis only butter” — became a national catchphrase.
But Norah knows the story of this grande dame from the inside. “My mother was a great fake,” she says. “She was never happy.” That’s not entirely true — or it’s not the only truth as this narrative winds through grief and remorse, amazement and delight.
Norah’s retrospection is sparked by the inquiries of a pompous graduate student working on a doctoral thesis about O’Dell. “She would portray my mother in all her radical subjectivity,” Norah says, “by which she meant that she wanted to de-iconise her and show her as an agent in the world.” Exasperated with such postmodern gobbledygook, Norah considers writing her own biography about her mother.
“Actress” isn’t that book; instead, it’s a thoughtful, sometimes wrenching consideration of what preparing to write such a book about her mother would entail. Enright has created the illusion of free-flowing association as Norah tries to extract her mother’s life from well-worn anecdotes, legends and deceptions. That detective work eventually involves a search for the identity of Norah’s father among the many men who cavorted with O’Dell. She could be a woman of disciplined graciousness and extreme passions. She fraternized with members of the IRA. She once shot a producer in the foot, an act of madness that wrenched the forgotten actress back into the news, got her committed to an asylum and marked her eventual demise.
For Norah, who was just trying to grow up and make a way in the world, her mother’s drama onstage and off was frequently embarrassing, sometimes exasperating. Only now, looking back as a mother herself, is she mature enough to consider the full spectrum of her mother’s character. She was an object of fantasy for millions but also a single woman contending with the demands of public adoration while facing the inevitable curse of age. “I began to see how she was, in the world,” Norah says, which is the last thing most of us can ever see about our mothers.
The chronology would appear no more ordered than the flow of anecdotes around a dinner table, but there’s always a design to Enright’s novels, a gradual coalescing of insight. Early on, “Actress” glides from one hilarious, calamitous theater story to the next. “There were so many anecdotes of cheap disaster,” Norah recalls, “an actor went on with no sword and he used a shoe instead. An actor forgot his lines. Or his pants. An actor fell down a hole. . . . An actor dies on stage, he really dies, he rolls his eyes up into the back of his head and he says, ‘I am dying,’ in a helpful tone of voice, and the actors keep going until belief drains out of them.” We’re drawn back to a time when traveling actors performed in towns that had no idea how the classics would end. In one village, a woman in the audience yells up to Romeo in the tomb: “Oh, give her a good shake!”
But the world outside the limelight could be very dark. Enright re-creates an exploitative industry that young O’Dell moved through, from the backstages of little Irish theaters to the glitzy studios of Hollywood, which “owned her ‘image,’ if such a thing could be legally owned.” Everywhere lurked actors, directors and producers willing to use O’Dell, sometimes with shocking cruelty. If, at the time, her mother usually felt too powerless to strike back, Norah gets her revenge here with precise and killing descriptions of these insecure, manipulative creeps.
But beneath this theatrical story runs a more somber tale of Norah’s own disappointments, conveyed in asides and sighs. Determined to learn from her mother’s experience with men, Norah ends up making many of the same mistakes — and some new ones, too. Craving the domestic stability that O’Dell never had or wanted, Norah constructs the most ordinary life possible. It’s the epitome of Enright’s subtlety: the way she can suggest the anaerobic pain of a strained marriage with just a few lines.
As Norah moves through the public and private lives of Katherine O’Dell, she not only re-creates a great actress in all her fascinating complications, she plumbs the depth of her own affection for a woman she was often too quick to judge. Stripped raw of any sentimentality, the result is a critique, a confession, a love letter — and another brilliant novel from Anne Enright.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Anne Enright
W.W. Norton. 264 pp. $26.95