Charming Billy

Charming Billy

Alice McDermott tells the story of Billy Lynch within the complex matrix of a tightly knit Irish American community, in a voice that is resonant and full of deep feeling. Charming Billy is a masterpiece about the unbreakable bonds of memory and desire.


  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (December 31, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374913900
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374913908
  • ASIN: 0374120803
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (384 customer reviews)
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  1. Like the earlier reader with a 5 star review, I too had to comment on “Charming Billy” after reading the negative customer reviews which have recently been posted here. Though I read this book months ago, it remains one of the best written and most memorable books I have read in many years. It cannot be said to be an enjoyable book, unless can take pleasure in the level of artistry and characterization achieved by a subtle writer. It does not depend on plot, the story’s main events are revealed early–both in the text and in all the reviews. There is no suspense, no submarine or serial killer, no cannibalism or girlish conversations. To witness Billy’s destruction as a participant in the drama–for that is the achievement of the author, to have forced the reader beyond distant observation–is painful and wears on your ability to accept the depressing emotions that result. For those whose imagination can only be stimulated when their heart is accelerating, this book cannot satisfy, but reading it is a moving experience. It is an exploration of motivation, of self-destruction, of love and of the quality of ‘unselfishness’, of the sources of decay and of the misguided nature of those who take upon themselves the judgement of what is best for others. It makes you wish you could weep and find some relief.

  2. I’m sorry to read negative reviews of this book. It was exquisite, in simplicity of language, vividness of character, intracacies of plot and structure. What I love is the mirroring of lives as tales are told through the perspectives of the generations of this Irish American family. Billy’s story is Dennis’ story; Eva’s story is Maeve’s story; Kate’s story is is Claire’s story, and all stories are the narrator’s story: that’s what a family is. So much to explore and reflect upon here: youth, death, obsession, love, perception, truth, benevolence, mercy, generosity, guilt, selfishness, redemption, illusion, reality, to say nothing of alcoholism, marriage, family, success, racism and religion. My favorite line, which I think sums the book up tidily: “…then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn.” There is the reality of a life, and quite separate from it are the perceptions that color it, in actuality and in memory. This book exquisitely explores perception and attitude, and the difference they make in a life. Hats off to Alice McDermott; this is such a rewarding, thought-provoking piece of work, I just thank her for creating it.

  3. First off, it’s amazing how polarized these reviews are! I guess you either love this book or you hate it.
    I started Charming Billy with an open mind. However, it is the only book I have had to FORCE myself to finish. It took such effort to drag myself to the end of it. It’s also one of the few books I wish I had never bought.
    Though I respect everyone’s opinion, I honestly can’t understand some of the other reviewers’ fascination with the prose or characterization. To me, the book seemed so awkwardly written, like something I had written in creative writing in college (believe me, I am NOT complimenting myself 🙂 The prose is very self-conscious. I couldn’t lose myself in either the characters or their story because I couldn’t get past the facade of the words.
    Why on earth did McDermott write this book from the perspective of the daughter of one of the main characters? It takes a while to figure out who is speaking and when you do know who it is, you never find out WHO SHE IS. You never get to know her at all. She barely speaks to the other characters, rarely interacting even in the group scenes. Her distance from the story creates distance for the reader. Without some connection to her as the voice of the story, it’s hard to care about what she’s telling you. (And – most awkwardly, I must say – at times she seems to be directing the story to her husband. Why? Does anyone have an opinion on this?)
    To be fair, I thought the story briefly lit up during the scenes describing Sheila and Daniel’s courtship, mainly because the narrator faded into the background during those scenes. Unfortunately, throughout the rest of the story, I was unable to get past the narrator’s odd presence to enjoy it.
    One last comment.Read more ›

  4. 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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