Charming Billy: A Novel by Alice McDermott (1998 ), 280 pages
Winner of the 1998 National Book Award.
Set in New York, both in New York City and in the Hamptons.
Charming Billy is essentially bookended by the funeral of Billy Lynch. It backtracks to cover the family’s story from the mid-1940s on (plus snippets from earlier as well), starting when the boys, Billy and Dennis, cousins from Irish Catholic homes, get back from World War II. They take a hiatus that summer to restore a much-neglected bungalow in the Hamptons.
The book’s narrator is the unnamed daughter, now grown, of Dennis Lynch.
Right from the first couple pages, this was a welcoming book. The writing is quiet, calm, smooth.
“My parents, I have to believe, had a marriage that ran the typical course from early infatuation to serious love to affection occasionally diminished by impatience and disagreement, bolstered by interdependence, fanned now and then by fondness, by humor. That they loved each other is a given, I suppose, although I suppose, too, that there were months, maybe years, when their love for one another might have disappeared altogether and their lives proceeded only out of habit or the failure to imagine any other alternative” (page 52).
Really, this book wasn’t sad like I expected it to be, after reading “devastating in its emotional impact,” and “A haunting … work” on the back cover. Even the Amazon review calls it “a devastating account of the power of longing and lies, love’s tenacity, and resignation’s hold.” I disagree, though. I didn’t find Charming BIlly devastating at all. It does contain notes of melancholy, but it’s about a man who died!
It was, at only a couple points, a little difficult to remember what time period I was returning to as the narrative jumped around. This didn’t happen often, though, and it was quickly remedied. Even when this did happen, it wasn’t drastic or jarring to me.
This is a lovely story with rich characters that explores family relationships, truth and lies, love and loss, drinking, alcoholism, work, and the church.
I wanted the book to contain a family tree; I think this would have been very helpful in keeping everyone straight in my mind. (I sometimes couldn’t keep the song by the same name out of my head while reading. I’m guessing that’s intentional.)
This book is on the Image Journal list, a long-term challenge I’ve set for myself.
While I wouldn’t class this as one of the best of the best books I’ve read, it was a good, quiet read.
McDermott has written several other books.