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5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great book!
I am surprised at the negative reviews. This is a novel, but it is very philosophical. It's really about reality, what is "real"? What is romanticized or exaggerated? Especially in family histories passed down through the generations, what is the truth? Is there such a thing? Is it possible to decode it from all the tangled threads of people's recollections? Is there a...
Published on July 29 2003

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3.0 out of 5 stars Not what it could have been
Sometimes the books that are showered with awards and drip with critical praise are the ones that disappoint you the most. It's not that "Charming Billy" is a poorly written novel. Far from it. Alice McDermott is clearly a very strong writer whose prose and dialogue are finely crafted. It's just that the storyline in this book seems to have so much promise, yet never...
Published on Jan. 30 2003 by Craig Wood


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2.0 out of 5 stars lacking charm and construction, Dec 17 2003
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
The first chapter of this book has the quiet charm and colorful charactors one would expect, but it quickly devolves into a confused meander through side stories, secondary charactors and long passages (pages and chapters) of people sitting and telling the story to someone else - at a wake, a bar, etc, creating a distance between the reader and a flattening of any plot tension. This is heightened by the undefined narrator/lens figure. Yes, she is the daughter of Billy's good friend, but beyond being there as a witness to the conversations and reminiscences, she plays no narrative role, has no stake in the story, no life outside the story, in short, she is flat. Why McDermott chose this way to construct the story is beyond me - the occaisional interjections of the narrator's first person voice every 30 pages are a disruption that contributes nothing to the story.
The main story, of a man who is told by his best friend his fiancee has died, when she (we learn in first chapter) married someone else, could have been interesting, but it is never developed as other charactors' loves and work tales take over. The whole thing feels like listening to someone else's family stories where you don't really know who is who, and after awhile, don't care.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great book!, July 29 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
I am surprised at the negative reviews. This is a novel, but it is very philosophical. It's really about reality, what is "real"? What is romanticized or exaggerated? Especially in family histories passed down through the generations, what is the truth? Is there such a thing? Is it possible to decode it from all the tangled threads of people's recollections? Is there a way to make sense of people's memories, or of our own memories of "what really happened"? Just because you don't like the protagonists doesn't mean it isn't a good book. It makes you think. It makes you look at your own family stories and your own memories and see that each person's perception of the same events is quite different. Even someone who seems to be "hard headed", practical and "down to earth" is creating their own reality by taking that stance... using their imagination to try to strip away the imaginary. Read Wallace Stevens "The Plain Sense of Things" or Blake's "letter to John Trusler" and then reread this book.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Billy's not so charming, April 20 2003
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This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
Charming Billy is a book you may want to think twice about before picking up, not because it is a difficult read in the sense of language but because of the construction of the book. The author, Alice Dermott, might be charming at times with her colorful insights, vivid images and creative phrasing, but this book certainly was far from charming. McDermott is an accomplished writer, but in this book she tells the story completely backwards making it awkward at times and quite difficult to follow. I had to read a good fifty pages before I even had a clue as to what was going on in this book and who the character was who was being talked about. Not to mention that each chapter almost retells what the one before it did with maybe one more added detail to the story. So in essence, the reader might read the same sentences a dozen times. This book is not at all challenging with its very bland wording and frankly is quite boring with not a stagnant plot but a complete lack of one. The characters never get a chance to develop because the story never goes anywhere. I only finished reading the book because every once in a great while McDermott explodes in an intricate and almost poetic phrasing with the prize for finishing this book being that the end is the only part that can be considered good.
Obviously this book's main character is a man named Billy, who fell in love at a young age with a girl name Eva after coming back from war with his cousin, Dennis. Billy was fooled by his cousin into thinking she died of pneumonia and so Billy tries to live his life and go on without her. Dennis only tells Billy this lie to cover up for the fact that Eva moved on and got married to someone else. Dennis does not want his cousin to know that Eva used Billy's money, which was intended for other purposes, to start a business for her new husband. After years of struggling with the brutal lie that Eva died, Billy marries a woman named Maeve. Unfortunally, Billy could never see her the way he saw his first and true love Eva. Billy struggles with the demons of his past while trying to move on to a new life, which is why this book captures the struggles and pitfalls of depression and alcoholism portrayed through Billy's emotional character so well. This book is not the actual living of Billy, but rather others telling the stories that made up his life. I find it very interesting how McDermott does not make the book about mourning Billy's death but about celebrating his life. This book starts out very creatively in a pub in New York after Billy's funeral as guest reminisce about old times they had with Billy and about how Eva forever changed Billy's life when she broke his heart by dying.
I would recommend this book to any readers who thoroughly enjoy a challenge in figuring out story lines. I also think this book would be a must for any psychology majors because of how deep this book goes into the realm of life's struggles, depression, and the battle over the addiction of alcoholism. I give this book a two star rating and not a three only because I have read books that are average and this book just falls short of being an average book. There is insight into this book; the main problem is there simply is no plot or action of any kind and that the book flip-flops from present to past constantly losing the reader.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not what it could have been, Jan. 30 2003
By 
Craig Wood (Menlo Park, CA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
Sometimes the books that are showered with awards and drip with critical praise are the ones that disappoint you the most. It's not that "Charming Billy" is a poorly written novel. Far from it. Alice McDermott is clearly a very strong writer whose prose and dialogue are finely crafted. It's just that the storyline in this book seems to have so much promise, yet never really goes anywhere.
Our protagonist, Billy Lynch, loses his fiancée to pneumonia and spends the rest of his life drinking himself to death to assuage his pain. The book begins at his wake and then hip-hops around, filling in the blanks of his oh-so-melancholy life. Sometimes it's difficult to keep track of all the characters in Billy's sprawling, Irish-American family. But a few notes that I jotted down as I read the book definitely helped sort out all of the confusion. Most of the characters are developed very nicely. But some are glossed over, like the narrator (Billy's cousin's daughter) and a fellow named Danny Lynch (and how exactly is he related to Billy?).
If you enjoyed reading Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," you might want to give "Charming Billy" a read. It's well written, poignant, and surely has a message. But if you're expecting a little (just a little) action, a plot twist here and there, or even a bona fide tear-jerker, this book may not be for you. Despite its strong points, "Charming Billy," just like the life of the book's hero, is not what it could have been.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Alice McDermott knows her craft, Aug. 10 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
Having heard that members of my book club found this book "hard to read," I was prepared for the worst. What a surprise to find myself completely absorbed by the characters and their lives from the exquisitely crafted first pages. It is a writer's dream as the novel uses many conventions and poetic descriptions which made everyone come alive. I found it much more appealing that Angela's Ashes. Maybe because it takes place in America and maybe because it focuses on immigrants and their descendents -- a group I am part of. Even though I am of Italian descent instead of Irish, I found many of the situations universal. I grew up with many Irish and number many among my closest friends so it gave me even more insight about this wonderful group and their love for one another, their loyalty and the pain of the alcoholism that plagues them. The alcoholism was handled in such a knowledgeable way; I know first hand what it is like to live with and know alcoholics. They are maddeningly charming and intelligent and so much in pain. The book captured all that. As a writer, I am inspired. As a reader, I am captivated and have placed this book among my all time favorites. I usually offer books to others to read. Not this one. This is a treasure and I will reread it many times. The stream of consciousness is not my most loved style, but McDermott used it very effectively and did not over use it as the author of Angela's Ashes did. I understand fully why it won a prize and why English teachers are assigning it; but I believe one must be a mature person to read and appreciate this very big slice of life as shown through several generations. A gem!
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1.0 out of 5 stars Slamming Billy!, July 1 2002
By 
Maurice Williams "mauricewms" (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
This certainly makes my list for 2002 worse reads. After 80 pages, I've given up (and it's a short novel!) The author's writing style displays a certain skill with the craft, however; her craftiness is wasted on a dull story line and even more dull characters. I found the pace languid which made a challenging writing style an even more laborious read.
The novel opens with a scene from Billy's repast. Billy appears to be a gentle drunk whose life ended long before alcoholism killed him. During the repast, family and friends recall aspects of Billy's life, setting the stage for a more detailed portrayal of his life and the circumstances that lead him to abuse alcohol. Unfortunately, Billy life (at least the first 80 pages) bored me completely. I'm not certain of the criteria used by the National Book Award committee to select its winners but this story has very little appeal. Based on the average rating here and conversation with others who've attempted the book (I have yet to talk to anyone who has actually completed it) it doesn't appear that I'm alone in my assessment. Can't recommend this one.
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4.0 out of 5 stars She had me until the end, Jan. 8 2002
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
I really enjoyed this book - right up until the last 20 or so pages. I did not find the theme of mourning love lost implausible, as did other readers, but completely believable. I enjoyed the characters, although I also got quite confused by the number of Dannies and Rosemaries and Lynches - I chose to just read through it, however, and didn't feel like I lost anything of the message. I thought the writing was really beautiful. But then the narrator brings it all to a screeching halt when she, for no apparent reason, addresses her husband directly (apparently the object of her narration, although I don't really know why) and talks about the night they first stripped naked together as young adults. It was jarring and it irritated me - it completely disrupted the flow of the story. Shaking that off, I tried to get back into it to enjoy the end of the story, but the narration never regained it's beauty or poignancy. So, I'm left thinking it was a good book, but I'm also ultimately oddly dissatisfied.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Confusing, Aug. 22 2001
By 
R.M. (Seattle, WA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
I picked this book merely because of the prize that it won, and I knew nothing of the author or what I was getting into. Having said that, let me now say that I don't really understand why this book is so good that it won the National Book Award. Yes, it does show real life and detail exactly the pain and suffering alcoholism causes in the afflicted and his or her loved ones. At the same time, the lack of a constant timeline and the uncertainty of just who the narrator was most of the time made the book difficult to follow. I wasn't exactly drawn in by the writing style--the lack of sentence subjects and the sometimes overdrawn conversational paragraphs that had no real speaker were quite annoying. In all truth, I had a hard time reading this book and had to force myself to finish it. I think it a good subject, and perhaps for those of a more literary mind, it would be satisfying, but for me, who unfortunately struggles to read the classics, this was anything but a charming read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Painfully beautiful, March 20 2001
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
I decided to read this again for a more substantive acknowledgement of St. Patrick's Day. Again, I found myself emotionally moved by this trully touching and profound work.
While all McDermott's works speak with a distinctly metropolitan New York Irish Catholic voice I have found this novel almost eerie in how precisely it represents this subculture. She reflects a thorough understanding of the group's psyche: its dreams, fears, strengths, prejudices, passions, and most importantly its weaknesses. The author shows uncanny skill in assessing character through observations which convincingly depict the motivations that inspire behavior. Her prose is both beautiful and profoundly insightful, in a characteristically understated Irish fashion.
Reading "Charming Billy" for me was unsettling. I felt as if McDermott was describing my family and the others with whom I grew up, revealing both those things we hid as well as those of we were proud. While this novel makes your heart ache its tremendous beauty is deeply satisfying.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Sorry, but I loved it, Dec 12 2000
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This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
Well, there's nothing like a good literary disagreement. The posts for this novel are really amazing, with plenty of one- and five-star opinions and equal passion from both camps. As for me, I loved it. I think if you're assigned the book in a classroom and have no particular interest to begin with, you might have a problem with it. And if you're below college age, it might not be for you. McDermott appeals not to much to the intelligence of the average reader as to the patience of a mature reader, and I don't think all that much patience is really required, either. By the end of the first section, with its astonishing verisimilitude for a particular time and place, and the neat little surprise twist at the end, I was hooked the rest of the way. And somewhere in the middle, while describing a rainy Irish funeral, she uses one parenthetical simile to describe the sound of the rain on the umbrellas that was so powerful I had to put the book down. It's worth reading just for that moment alone.
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Charming Billy
Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (Paperback - Jan. 12 1999)
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