Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy was the last book I read, as 2015 came to a close and a fitting end it was, as it opens at the funeral and wake of a man called Billy, a man who over-comforted himself with drink, for reasons that everyone present was happy to speculate on, most of them coming to the conclusion , that he’d never got over the fiancée that returned to Ireland with his ring and a promise to join him soon.

Close friends and family come together to mourn and remember Billy, this man of Irish descent who fell for Eva one summer, who promised himself to her and sent her the money he’d borrowed from his new boss, so she could return to him after she went back to Ireland.

It had been a short romance, but one that everyone present at his wake had an opinion on, yet no one appeared to have known the full truth of what really transpired. This becomes even more clear as the novel progresses towards the memory of Billy’s trip to Ireland about 30 years later, truth confronting him in a way grief could not.

Charming BillyThe novel unfolds and weaves like threads in a tapestry, as characters share their understanding of Billy, their memories of his charm and inclinations and what they knew about the short-lived romance with the Irish girl Eva.

They debate whether Billy’s demise and descent into alcoholism was part of who he was or the consequence of the heartbreak he had endured over the years, despite his marriage to Maeve, the widow, like wallpaper adorning the kitchen, witnesses all, but sits quietly in the background of this narrative.

“There was tremendous affection in Billy’s eyes, or at least they held a tremendous offer of affection, a tremendous willingness to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most.”

Slowly it creates a picture of a life and all lives, how they are formed, changed, steered by certain events, fractured by grief, sustained by community, vulnerable to and comforted by addiction, driven by faith, seduced by deception.

‘In the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs are small and personal, whose trials are ordinary enough, as tempered in their pain as in their resolution of pain, the claim of exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion.’

Much of the novel is narrated by the daughter of Dennis, Billy’s cousin. Dennis was close to Billy, they were together when that summer when they met the two girls Mary and Eva, at Dennis’s mother and stepmother’s holiday home, a place Billy would never return to, perhaps due to those memories, and a location that provides something of a twist near the end.

A nostalgic tale, imbued with sadness, post war expectations and a new world Irish charm, it carries a sense of stepping back in time, of being on the threshold of a new modern era, Billy, one of the last links to a bygone era.

It read like a tapestry, one story viewed through various perspectives, so we go over events again and again, as seen by numerous characters, like colourful threads in a tableau.

I picked this book up from the library after it had been highly recommended to me, I have another of her books on the shelf Someone, a 1920’s Irish-American coming-of-age portrait of a woman’s life through childhood, adolescence, motherhood and old age.

Have you read any of Alice McDermott’s work?

12 thoughts on “Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

  1. Claire, I can’t believe you read this book – thanks for bringing me the experience of recalling this beautiful novel. I read it many years ago and was rather heartbroken by it. I can’t say that I “enjoyed” it because the book was so painful – and true to life – but I still remember it. I also really, really like Child of My Heart by Macdermott. Also like her work because I married into a large Irish family! In fact, now that I think of it, I should read Child of My Heart again (probably deluding myself, there are so many books I want to read again, let alone those I haven’t read once yet).. Anyway, thanks for the lovely reading memory.

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    • Yes, it becomes difficult to describe the impact and longevity of thought process a book has in terms of ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’, as I was asked shortly after your comment. I was rather intrigued by it, at the delicate treatment of the man who must also have broken hearts. Inevitably books like this often have me wishing to have more of the other perspective, those we don’t really see, though we sense and feel something of what must have been passing through them at the time, the unspoken, the unseen, the unheard. I’m happy to have reminded you of it Valorie and thanks for mentioning Child of My Heart, I wasn’t aware of that title, but will be sure to look out for it too.

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  2. I’m so pleased to see this reviewed, Claire. I love this book and have read it several times. I think if you enjoyed Billy you’ll also enjoy Someone. It’s written with the same quiet elegance and empathy – a small masterpiece, for me anyway.

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    • Thanks for asking that, I have taken a little while to write about this book, as it is immensely thought-provoking, the way we discover the character of Billy through these different threads, also appears to exclude much of the obvious, it is not a story of the grief or otherwise of his wife, whose perspective I was curious about. I still wonder why she was so much in the shadow.

      I remember thinking the same thing when I read Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, it is a novel of the grief of a widow, but we never really understand or are told much about the relationship she had with her husband, it frustrates at the same time it reveals. It’s a brilliant book, but ‘like’ is too simplistic a word to describe it. In that book, the character Nora frustrated me (and so did Toibin by electing to used the third person limited narrative perspective which allows no other thoughts but Nora’s) but even while experiencing a negative emotion, it was and continues to be a thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying read. Especially in the engagement with other readers through their comments, where I came to understand much more about this character from those who identified with it, who knew or had lived with a person/mother like that.

      I did like Charming Billy, it requires patience for the whole picture to emerge, there is a strong sense of things held back, both via the author’s technique in recounting the story and in Billy’s character, in that we never really know what drove him, only the events that occurred from which we draw our own conclusions.

      Sorry for the long reply, ultimatemy I think these books mean more to those who have an Irish connection and/or are interested in understanding that within the context of grief, family relationships etc. I hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I recall reading this one way back when. So happy to have read this review for a much needed refresher. Hope you are enjoying your day.

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  4. I haven’t read Charming Billy but I have read Someone and I thought (felt) it to be a beautiful, lyrical, elegant and simply-told novel about how it is to live life (not exactly a small subject!) But beneath the apparent simplicity lies much: you have to look (read) again. Just as you describe the tapestry of Charming Billy, it seems to me that in Someone Macdermott writes sparely so there’s (much) room for readers to colour the worlds she shows us with our own. I like novels that ask a lot of readers, although there’s a fine line between that and not showing enough … .

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