“You will wake some morning and pat yourself down. You will realise that you think too much and live too little and that most people, men and women both, are mostly fine. You will love more easily and relinquish blame. At least I hope you will.”
“Actress” is the story, at least in part, of Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter Norah FitzMaurice. Norah is almost 59 years old at the time she is telling the story. Katherine O’Dell was a star of stage and screen. She was born in April 23, 1928, the daughter of “strolling players”, Menton FitzMaurice and Margaret Odell. Her given name was Katherine Ann FitzMaurice, which she changed to O’Dell, adding an apostrophe to her mother’s surname. She was the most famous actress in Ireland and as it turned out, “Katherine O’Dell, the most Irish actress in the world, was technically British….My mother was a great fake…you could call her anything you like, but you could not call her English. That would be a great insult. It would also, unfortunately, be true.”
Katherine spent much of her childhood traveling with her parents as part of Anew McMaster’s (“Mac”) acting troupe. Mac’s daughter, Pleasance, also an actress, became Katherine’s best and closest friend. Pleasance was a child actress in the troupe and played Trilby O’Ferrall in Trilby. Katherine was 10 years old when she made her debut in the Royalton Theatre in London, playing a crocus in a chorus of spring flowers. A few years later, Pleasance came down with Scarlet fever and at the age of 13, Katherine had to take her role as Trilby O’Ferrall. Her natural talent was apparent.
In 1946, Katherine and Pleasance set off to London together. Each got a job, Katherine as a receptionist for a theatre impresario. She found herself in the role of Talitha in The Awoken on stage. She was so good that it took her to New York and Broadway. Pleasance was jealous and their friendship waned. Katherine became a stage star in New York and soon was off to Hollywood to make movies.
Throughout her career, Katherine periodically came into contact with Boyd O’Neill, 11 years her senior. Boyd had joined the McMaster tour when Katherine was 14 and she valued his opinion of her talent.
While Katherine was in New York, Philip Greenfield was her co-star and at the age of 21 the studio arranged for them to marry. Katherine Despite the fact that Philip was homosexual, they remained married for a number of years. Philip is not Norah’s father.
Norah is obsessed with her mother and Norah’s husband suggests she write the book. She travels to England and other places for background, she muses over her mother’s relationships and she wonders about the identity of her own father, about whom her mother refused to speak. We learn that Katherine devolved to madness, and became institutionalized after inexplicably shooting Boyd. Katherine died at the age of 58.
Although the book is about Katherine, it is also about Norah, her relationships, her children and her marriage. The story is interwoven with sexual innuendo and violence, which shapes the spirits and stories of both Katherine and Norah. Norah’s recollections result in a constant shifting of emotion which pushes and pulls the reader with every shift.
The novel is beautifully written although at times it is difficult to follow the chronology, feeling choppy. I suspect this is an intentional technique intended to move the reader back and forth along with Norah’s shifting emotions– and I must say, it worked. The novel ends with a hint of hopefulness. “But I had…a great sense of the world’s generosity. Even though it was just my hopefulness in another guise.” Or is it just another turn of Norah’s emotions?
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