Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

I have had Charming Billy by Alice McDermott in my stack forever, so I decided it would be a great addition to my 2015 TBR PILE Challenge. One note about my 2015 TBR PILE Challenge: I am very behind.  I have only read four of the twelve books I promised to read, and it’s already July. I’m thinking that I might have to write a future post on Bookish Procrastination – though it’s likely that I’ll never get around to it.

Here's the TBR pile I promised to read
Little did I know when I picked up Charming Billy that I would be reading yet another book about grieving. Other books I have read recently that consider this theme are A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood, and Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín.

Charming Billy is more than just a story about grief, however. It’s also a story about faith. And I’d argue that it’s more specifically about how faith works as part of Irish-American cultural identity. The book’s plot– if you want to call it that – involves a gathering of friends and family at Billy Lynch’s funeral. As they mourn together, they grapple with whether Billy died of alcoholism or of the effects of a broken heart. The reader learns about both conditions – his drinking and his loss – as the narrative jumps around in time.

At the center of Billy’s life is a romantic loss. When he finds out that the love of his life has died back in Ireland, he is devastated, and that devastation goes on to influence all of the decisions he makes. But it turns out that perhaps Billy does not know the whole truth about his love’s death – in fact, he has been told a story about her that is not real. McDermott is asking whether comforting stories help or harm. And with that, she is asking questions about the function of religion as an organizing feature of this particular community’s world.

This book won the National Book Award in 1998, and it has many of the features of a lot of award-winning contemporary literature. The writing is gorgeous and subtle, and the ideas it plays with are big and profound. I’m glad I finally read it. But I will stress that this the kind of book to read when you’re feeling cozy and contemplative. It is not a page-turner, and I was surprised how long it took me to get through this slim volume. 

This is definitely a good novel to check out if you’re interested in Irish American ethnic culture or identity. The characters’ traditions, the way they care for one another and offend one another, the way they celebrate and self-destruct, and the way they communicate seem particular rather than universal. It would be interesting to pair this with a novel about another American cultural group and do some literary comparison (hint: book club idea!).

You can find a good interview with Alice McDermott here.

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