Charming Billy (Review)

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Charming Billy
Alice McDermott, 1998
243pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2009

There was something about Billy. Just an alchololic, a typical one, who stretched his friendships thin, strained his marriage, and died in the street. But, still, there was something special.

The daughter of Billy's best friend narrates this intimate portrait, not just of Billy Lynch, but of the large family of Irish-American cousins who surrounded him and loved him, especially her father, Dennis. Starting with the funeral luncheon after Billy's burial, family members recall what they know.

And most of what they know about Billy centers on his lost love for Eva, a young Irish girl he met in the states after the war but who died on her return to Ireland. It was her death that set into motion the tragedy that defined Billy's life. Or so the story goes....

But life always being different than what it appears is part of what goes on here. Relationships between family and friends, husband and wife are explored with sharp poignancy and insight—as the memories go back in time to the 1940's through the '80's. Ancient dreams are unearthed and faith is altered, but clan is what binds everyone together. Gradually, Billy emerges as his outline gets filled in, yet he still remains something of a mystery.

McDermott gives us no crises, no drama, no high-tension wires to cross. The plot is built by layering memory upon memory. But her story—that of Billy and all the others—is simply and beautifully rendered, with a fair amount of wit. It's a story of ordinariness in all its magnificance. I love this book.

See our Reading Guide for Charming Billy.

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