If you have ever howled your way through a screening of the Faye Dunaway debacle "Mommie Dearest," you know that having a famous mother is not always a laughing matter, just ask Christina Crawford.
From Debbie Reynolds to Madonna, the concerns of superstar mothers are not like other people's and that's sure to leave a lasting effect on their not yet famous kids.
Anne Enright's new novel "Actress" is all about celebrity. How it does something to you, she reminds us, constantly being in the public eye, subject to its scrutiny and opinions, day after day, for decades.
The mother in question is Katherine O'Dell, a grande dame of the Irish theatre who has risen to fame after a long career in what you might call the serious theatre, by which I mean in roles created by masters like J.M. Synge, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett.
Although she may not exactly be a marquee name around the world, O'Dell has the respect of one of the most devoted castes in the world, the ardent theatre-goer. Her celebrated stints on Broadway, in Hollywood and elsewhere have certainly made her as close to a megastar as the Ireland of the period (the late 1940's) could produce.
A star of the stage but also at her own breakfast table, Enright explores the way people can become slowly trapped in their own mythologies like flies in amber. In her daily interactions, how much was she the actress and how much was she the woman, her daughter Norah wonders? Performing domestic chores as though she were professionally lit and had just heard someone call Action, who really was she in Nora's life as well as in her own?
Solving these riddles isn't just exercise for Norah in her private life, they are questions shared by generations of her mother's fans, a fact literally brought home to her when a student writing a thesis on her mother's life upsets her with invasive questions.
Why don't you write her life story, her husband finally exclaims after the students visit? Already a successful novelist in her own right, it's a question that Norah soon takes to heart and so her journey and the book begins, unraveling the mystery of her mother's life.
This may be Enright's "Brooklyn," the most obviously cinematic story that she has told to date. Certainly, it takes all the unexpected turns of an Almodovar film. One example is that it turns out that this self-described Irish actress isn't Irish at all, but in this hall of mirrors fable why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Theft, of one kind or another, is a recurring theme in the book. Katherine's script for "In The Shadow Of The Glen," adapted from the play by J.M. Synge, is taken out of her hands and then out of her control, by the man she will later shoot, Boyd O'Neill.
“O'Neill styled himself as the man in charge of film in Ireland,” Enright writes, “although there were no films in Ireland.” Men are in charge of everything in Katherine and Norah's Ireland, even the imagination, with predictable results.
The reflexive ageism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-feminism of Ireland in the 1970s are all recalled with a gimlet eye. Dinner parties are remembered where men twice Norah's age feel empowered to make passes at her, with Katherine in the background presiding over all assembled with a too practiced nonchalance.
Another kind of theft "Actress" reflects on is the power imbalance between men and women. For Katherine, this is a lifelong dynamic, one that has shaped her career and progress on and off stage and fueled a deep rage in her that will ultimately unmoor her life and sanity.
But the cruelest theft of all is that of Katherine's artistry. Already judged past her sell-by at the age of 26, her long career afterward is the result of her own talent and steely determination, skills that are undervalued where they are not dismissed by most of the world's men. She succeeds in spite of them, swimming upstream, at enormous personal cost.
Norah's own misuse by men further comments on her mother's. Assaulted by a man old enough to be her father, she later reflects on the abuse she once almost took for granted with a simmering rage that reflects her mother's.
“I felt as you might feel after a burglary when all the stupid things are taken – the hi-fi, the cassette player – and they leave the things you love most because these things cannot be seen and have no price,” Norah writes, incandescently. “The little photograph, the faded flower. What did they get, people say and you say Oh, just stuff.”
Enright writes in language this powerful on every page, making "Actress" a furious and unforgettable read, but also at times a wildly funny one. The gulf between the acceptable social behavior of the seventies and eighties and now is particularly instructive and Enright has kept the receipts.
What separated her mother from herself is of course time. Both grew up in eras where they were marked by the power and sexual dynamics that shaped them, but Norah has had the benefit of a rapidly changing set of circumstances that her mother did not. Both are in a sense victims of those prevailing conditions, but only one has made it out somewhat intact.
So "Actress" isn't just a deep reflection on the power of celebrity and patriarchy, it's also an engaging meditation on what those systems permit and deny you and what sort of person you might become in their shadow.
In "Actress" Norah often reflects on the authenticity of her mother's love, which even after her death can come back to her as a half performance. We learn that Norah can not quite resolve for herself what was real and what was imagined in their long relationship, which seemed always to camera and always directed toward the world of men.
All women are trained to become actresses until they resolve to play themselves the book reminds us, living exactly as they are and with little thought for who it offends or who it pleases. "Actress" is about what it takes to step into yourself on your own terms, and what you lose when you fail to do so - which if you're very lucky you'll decide for yourself.
* Actress by Anne Enright, Norton $26.95.