Celebrity often looks glamorous to outsiders. And who wouldn’t have envied the life of Irish actress Katherine O’Dell? Her daughter, Norah, acknowledges her mother’s elegance, like the way she’d leave a last bite of toast on her plate with “a little wavy-over thing she does with her hand, a shimmy of rejection or desire.” Even at the breakfast table, her mother was a star.
But as Anne Enright reminds us in Actress, celebrity is often accompanied by gloom. This touching novel charts a star’s decline, from early Broadway and Hollywood fame in 1948 to her sad later years, when she was reduced to degrading stage roles and a commercial for Irish butter.
One of the saddest ironies is that Katherine, “the most Irish actress in the world,” wasn’t Irish. She was born in London to a stage-actor father who never had a great career. Katherine’s life was more successful—and more checkered, with relationships with domineering men, suspected interactions with IRA members and struggles with mental illness, culminating in her rash decision to shoot a producer in the foot after he declined to produce one of her scripts.
All of these events are relayed from the perspective of Norah, a novelist, who travels to London to meet people from Katherine’s past and seek answers to several mysteries, among them the identity of her father.
The pacing is too leisurely at times, but Actress is at its best when Enright examines the complexities of this unusual mother-daughter bond. Memorable descriptions of even secondary characters make this book a treat, as when Norah reminisces about her thespian grandfather who “carried his handsome like an unwanted gift—one he offered to the world, but could never quite give away.”
Late in the novel, when ruminating on events that can harm, Norah says, “You can also be destroyed by love.” As Enright shows, love often looks glamorous, but sometimes it’s only a guise.