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Showing 1-10 of 41 reviews(3 star)show all reviews
on January 30, 2003
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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on August 22, 2001
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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on October 18, 2000
This novel, which reflects on the life of now deceased alcoholic Billy, is told from the point of view of the daughter of Billy's best friend. This point of view, although seemingly removed from the situation, makes for a strongly constructed novel and allows us to peak into Billy's world through a somewhat objective observer. There is a tragedy to Billy's hopelessness that is difficult to ignore. Alice McDermott does a fine job of describing the losses in Billy's life, namely that of his first love, a young Irish woman whom Billy courts during her short stay as a nanny. Billy learns of her death shortly after her return to Ireland and the devastation never leaves him. The point of contention seems to lie in the cause of Billy's alcoholism: would he have been an alcoholic even if she had not been lost? The truth of course adds to the tragedy: she was not dead but had in fact married someone else. McDermott takes on this tendentious subject with skill. There is a subtlety to the book which allows it to avoid becoming melodramatic. Billy is characterized as all too human: he is both charming and obnoxious, both kind and cruel. Even with all of these strengths, I found the book lacked a proper development of Billy. McDermott teases us by presenting Billy the way she does. It makes us want to know much more than she gives us.
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on October 5, 2000
Wonderfully evocative of a Queens, New York Irish family. I could imagine many of them living in an Archie Bunker-type neighborhood. I know it well having had an Irish relatives who lived in such a place and liked wakes as they afforded great opportunities to catch up with the family. The coversations rang true to my ears and some of the characters were well developed. I did not think Billy charming. He was a falling down drunk, and a manipulator who abused his wife and used his friends. Maeve's character was better developed and very sympathetic. She deserved the happy ending she received. Eva and the manner of the reunion were not credible. Dennis, while agreeable, never came alive for me. His daughter is a cipher. I would have liked to know more about her, her husband, where she lives, how many kids she has. People were introduced briefly and it was hard to keep them all straight. The convoluted style required slow and sometimes repeated readings to understand the author's meaning. This is not objectionable if the end result is worth the effort. Sometimes it was; often it was not. Switching back and forth in time and place was distracting and off-putting for this reader. I thought that there was much beauty in the descriptions and rather probing thoughts on questions of faith. I liked being in the company of people who reminded me of family members long gone. I, however, do not feel the book deserved such a distinguished award. For such an experienced writer Ms. McDermott should know better how to write lushly in a less convoluted style. A good editor could have pared down the run-on sentences and the many distracting bracketed phrases.
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on June 5, 2000
"Charming Billy" is a book full of potential -- much like the basis for the central character of the novel. But it is my opinion that it's Alice McDermott's fault that the publication could not pick-up enough strength to keep this reader interested, much less become engrossed in the tragic circumstances of Billy's life (though I finished it nonetheless).
Yet there was a feeling throughout the long and difficult reading that the story could've taken-off; to find that truth that lies within many of us who want to understand certain tragedies. Unfortunately, I could not feel the power that some other readers did. I blame McDermott for the construction of the story: instead of being subtle and strong, it was weak and inconsistent.
At any rate, I don't recommend this book. Personally, I was interested in the novel because of the story's premise -- and I did read all of the Amazon.com reviews prior to purchase. I assumed that the mixed ratings for this prize-winning publication were actually due to the notion that great works often go misunderstood. Maybe, but this isn't a great work. Though it had potential to be ....
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on February 11, 2000
I just finished reading Charming Billy and the attending customer reviews. Very poetic, therefore repetition. I didn't like the book, but believe that if I could understand James Joyce, I might have. Unlike some customer reviewers, I would have no trouble liking a drunk (especially a ficticious one). But I didn't get to know one from this writing, very little of the story was told from Billy's perspective.
I wonder if the sentence beginning, "Unable" on p.211 relfects the author's frustration with long ago run-on sentence prohibition?
Reminded me somewhat of a humorless Neil Simon childhood account. (I was not able to appreciate the "witty" content referred to by one pro[fessional] reviewer.) I enjoyed the description of the Long Island house and landscape.
I couldn't understand the author's seeming condemnation of "the lie" (intended to comfort), as set against the constant comforting references to the Next Life. And Billy drank through both lie and truth.
I had no trouble getting through the book, although I kept waiting for something abrupt to happen at the end. And it did. The last several paragraphs were upbeat. They in fact reflected a phenomenal (unbelievable?) adjustment to old age, old spouses, even old loss of faith. Only youth is tragic.
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on December 10, 1999
The book "Charming Billy"is written by Alice McDermott. This book has recived a national award. Alice is known for her great use of words. This story takes place in a small remote bar in the Bronx. In the after gathering of the fureral for Billy. Here friends and family share stories about theur beloved Billy. In only 243 pages you read numerous stories about Billy, Eva, Dennis, Mauve and many others. The title of the book "Charming Billy"gives a brief discription of what Billy is like. Billy is a kind and conciderate man that suffers from the consequences of drinking. A portion of the book takes place on the Long Island coast, which is also probably related to the picture that is on the cover. A quote from the book that is exceptionaly good is "Or, if they didn't think to call it beauty-they said courage." This line was used to describe Billy's wife at the after gathering of the funeral. I personaly would give this book a 3 out of a 5. I believe that this book is more suited of an adult reader than a juevenal reader. A adult reader will be more able to relate to this book.
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on March 4, 1999
I heard Alice McDermott interviewed several times and wondered what the outcome of her prize-winning story would be. She's good at describing characters--the telling detail, the grimace, the laugh, the sly move, for example--but less good at painting the larger picture. So, Billy was charming. He drank. His cousin lied to him about a girl important to him. His life moved on. Next-to-last episode, he's in Ireland 20 years later, discovers the truth of the girl's sudden disappearance from his life. Last episode, Alice McDermott's telling details again but this time about the inside of the beach house in the Hamptons. Odd. Disjointed. Frank McCourt's self-proclaimed reason for success was he wrote a simple narrative from beginning to end. This book has more connection to the Irish in America, being New York Irishness, but loses the reader between the Bronx and East Hampton. The committee meant well. The publisher reaps the benefit, and Alice McDermott moves closer to the truth through fiction, I hope. I'll wait for the book that isn't quite so choppy and inconclusive.
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on February 24, 1999
A nice read, with familiar (if not stereotyped) characters that evokes sentiment over the fleeting sadness of our lives and the perceptions and deceptions that we carry out with ourselves and our loved ones. Billy himself is a character right out of Carrickfergus - a handsome rover, drunk now and rarely sober, with a fatal, largely illusory lost love darkening his spirit. However, it is hard to accept the basis given for the ruination of a life - or to accept the depth of a character who would render such a superficial judgement. It is hard to make a lasting connection with any of the characters. They seem to have been produced out of familiar molds of a set number (six - to be exact, as the author relates) and not to exist as individuals with their own will outside the predestination of the Irish Catholic order. Worth reading as a casual pickup - certainly not the stuff of a National Book Award. (But then none of the "winners" have been worthy lately -- except McCarthy - and what else was there to choose from this year? Certainly not Wolfe - Wolfe's 'Vanities" being the most over-rated, over-praised book in recent memory).
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on January 31, 1999
Reading Charming Billy felt much like reading the a sequel to That Night...same voice (or voices, as the point of view was often cloudy and shifting, often within the same paragraph), same expectation of the spectacular, which turns out to be some quiet almost-tragedy that many of us refer to as an inevitable part of life. I didn't see the passion Billy supposedly had for Eva as something that would follow him throughout his life. It was young love, a summer fling, a fleeting romance with a beautiful girl; it was hardly portrayed as the love of a lifetime between two soul mates. And how an entire network of people can over look the extreem alcoholism from which Billy suffers, passing it off as "just Billy" or blaming it on his loss of "the Irish girl" most of them never met is simply unfathomable. Throughout the book, I had the feeling that there was a wonderful story there, only no one was telling it. This book is a nice, quiet, quick read. Hardly worthy, though, of the National Book Award. Reading the other finalists is certainly warrented.
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