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Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy (1998)

by Alice McDermott

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1,743294,050 (3.38)64
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    Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (nancyewhite)

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
This is a charming tale of an Irish American family and of Billy, a charming, much-loved alcoholic. We begin at Billy's funeral and start to learn his story through the gossip being shared over the table at lunch following the burial. It's a gentle book which moves a bit slowing but which spins an interesting family history in which we get to know and like Billy. Although not explicitly, the book raises the question of how much Billy's alcoholism is a result of genetics and how much it is a result of life experiences. An easy, worthwhile read. ( )
  RebaRelishesReading | Jul 14, 2014 |
A graceful tale, an extended wake and reflection on the life of a man. Poignant, well-written characters, can't exactly say it was a pleasure to read but the author is very skilled in helping us see a man's life -- the joys, the despairs, the rejection.
  wareagle78 | Feb 15, 2014 |
A slow, sad book that describes the way that a sudden romantic disappointment changes the life of a likeable Irish-American drinker. McDermott's skilled at conveying the essence of character: after finishing "Charming Billy," I felt like I knew him, along with many of his friends, relatives and associates. Still, the parts of this novel I enjoyed most were, paradoxically, some of the elements that had least to do with any particular character. The book's got some lovely descriptions of the Long Island shoreline and skilfully traces its development from a sparsely populated wilderness to an ordinary suburb. She's also good at conveying the relative isolation that the Irish community once lived in. Most of the lives described in "Charming Billy" are unambitious and constrained, and this provides a welcome contrast to the content-free nostalgia that's seems so common among many latter-day Irish Americans. For all its focus on its titular character, McDermott's book is really the story of a whole community, and, in its way, an elegy for a way of life. It's narrated by a daughter of one of Billy's cousins, someone working her way out of the Irish-American experience, and I think that this was a wise choice on the author's part, since it provides a certain necessary distance from Billy's experience.

At the same time, I'm not sure that I really enjoyed this one. I feel that, in portraying the Irish-American community that could sometimes be as claustrophobic as it was supportive, McDermott is making a conscious effort to write against some well-worn sentimental ethnic tropes. The problem is that I'm not sure that she always succeeds: Billy himself is a silver-tongued charmer with a drinking problem, after all, and we meet a full complement of suffering Irish mothers and dashing Irish hellraisers, too. Also, while she writes well, the author also tends to hold on to both her sentences and her scenes a bit too long. In short, this book drags in places, and I think that many readers will find the scenes of extended post-funeral mourning as hard to get through as I did. For all this, its not a bad read, or a bad novel, but I'm not sure it screams "prize-winner." Apparently, someone over at the National Book Foundation feels differently. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Feb 14, 2014 |
As I was reading reviews of this book, it seemed like people really liked it, or really disliked it. There were very few opinions that fell in the middle. If you are looking for action, mystery, and adventure, you will NOT find it here. The book starts at the funeral of an alcoholic dreamer, Billy, and proceeds to flashbacks of his life through the fond reminiscences of others in his Irish American family. I thought it was a beautifully written story of love, faith and loyalty. ( )
  NanaCC | Jan 22, 2013 |
The very beginning was interesting right up to where the mourners finished eating the after-funeral meal following Billy's service. After that, I found this book to be very boring. There were also so many characters thrown at you in detail at one time that it was also very confusing. I forced myself to read half the book but just couldn't stand it any longer. The story would never just get to the point. This is the second time I've tried it. I'm done. ( )
  shesinplainview | Dec 26, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
We all have books that rededicate us to the fantastic powers of fiction, and this is one of mine. McDermott makes the point that when a person’s life story is fully told they may become more mysterious—easy to say, but when fiction brings you to a realization like this, when an author can make this happen inside of you—there’s nothing like it.
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Somewhere in The Bronx, only twenty minutes or so from the cemetery, Maeve found a small bar-and-grill in a wooded alcove set well off the street that was willing to serve the funeral party of forty-seven mediium-rare roast beef and boiled potatoes and green beans amandine, with fruit salad to begin and vanilla ice cream to go with the coffee.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 038533334X, Paperback)

Charming Billy is a devastating account of the power of longing and lies, love's tenacity, and resignation's hold. Even at his funeral party, Billy Lynch's life remains up for debate. This soft-spoken, poetry lover's drinking was as legendary among his Queens, New York, family and friends as was his disappointment in love. But the latter, as his cousin Dennis knows, "was, after all, yet another sweet romance to preserve." After World War II, both young men had spent one sun-swept week on Long Island, renovating a house and falling in with two Irish sisters--nannies to a wealthy family--"marveling, marveling still, that this Eden was here, at the other end of the same island on which they had spent their lives."

By the end of their idyll, Billy and Eva were engaged, though she was set to return to County Wicklow. Determined to earn enough money to bring her, her family, and if necessary her entire village back to the U.S., Billy took two jobs, one of which would indenture him for years. But despite the money he sent, Eva never returned, and then was suddenly dead of pneumonia. The true tragedy is that she had simply kept her fare and married someone else--a secret Dennis keeps for the next 30 years as he watches Billy fall into a loveless marriage and the self-administered anesthesia of alcohol.

Alice McDermott's quiet, striking novel is a study of the lies that bind and the weight of familial wishes. She seems far less interested in the shock of revelation than in her characters' power to live through personal disaster. As Dennis's daughter pieces together Billy's real history, she also learns of the accommodations her own family had long made--and discovers that good intentions can be as destructive as the truth they mean to hide.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:59 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Everyone loved him. If you knew Billy at all, then you loved him. The late Billy Lynch's family and friends, a party of forty-seven, gather at a small bar and grill somewhere in the Bronx to remember better times in good company, and to redeem the pleasure of a drink or two from the miserable thing that a drink had become in Billy's life. His widow, Maeve, is there and everyone admires the way she is holding up, just as they always admired the way she cared for Billy after the alcohol had ruined him. But one cannot think of Billy Lynch's life, one's own relentless affection for him, without saying at some point, "There was that girl. The Irish girl." And one can't help but think that the real story of his life lay there.… (more)

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