Charming Billy

Charming Billy

3.4 23
by Alice McDermott, Roses Prichard
     
 

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Billy Lynch's family and friends have gathered at a small Bronx bar. They have come to comfort his widow and to eulogize one of the last great romantics, trading tales of his famous humor, immense charm, and unfathomable sorrow. As they linger on into this extraordinary night, their voices form Billy's tragic story and their mourning becomes a gentle homage to all

Overview

Billy Lynch's family and friends have gathered at a small Bronx bar. They have come to comfort his widow and to eulogize one of the last great romantics, trading tales of his famous humor, immense charm, and unfathomable sorrow. As they linger on into this extraordinary night, their voices form Billy's tragic story and their mourning becomes a gentle homage to all the lives in their small community fractured by grief, shattered by secrets, and sustained by the simple dream of love.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Charming Billy, Alice McDermott's pitch-perfect evocation of post-World War II Irish American immigrant life, is a novel resonant with voices, in this case the voices of its voluble, bereaved characters, united in their efforts to understand the life and tragic death of their much-loved Billy Lynch. As the narrative jumps back and forth through time to explore the effect Billy has had on the friends and family who loved him, it becomes clear that Charming Billy, like McDermott's earlier novel That Night, is fueled by the twin engines of nostalgia and lost love. What makes the novel unusual, however, is the revelation, at the end of the first chapter, that the torch Billy carried for his long-dead love (a loss many believe caused the alcoholism that killed him) is predicated upon a lie: the Irish girl Billy loved and believed dead is, it turns out, actually alive, married and living in Ireland. Billy's cousin, Dennis, it seems, couldn't bear to tell Billy of her betrayal of him 30 years earlier; hoping to spare him a lifetime of pity and humiliation, Dennis instead told him a fictionalized story of her death.

Thus the central debate of the novel is set in motion: Was it the knowledge of Eva's betrayal that killed Billy? Or was it Billy's belated discovery of Dennis's 30-year-old lie? Or was his death simply due to a genetic weakness for alcohol, as one of Billy's relatives argues? Whatever the reason, observes Dennis's daughter (from whose point of view the novel takes place), of one thing there is nodoubt:Billy's death "ripped apart, plowed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room."

Wisely, it is through these other characters' voices, and through McDermott's poignant descriptions, that readers glean a sense of just how keen their loss is. In just a few lines, for instance, McDermott's description of Billy's widow, Maeve, manages to convey a lifetime of simplicity, modesty, and suffering.

Maeve sat in front, at the head of the table. She wore a navy-blue dress with long, slim sleeves and a round neckline, and anyone in the room who had not thought it earlier thought now — perhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she wore — that there was a kind of beauty in her ordinary looks, in her plainness. Or, if they didn't think to call it beauty, they said courage — more appropriate to the occasion and the day — not meaning necessarily her new-widow's courage (with its attendant new-widow's clichés bearing up, holding on, doing well), but the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter: pale, downy skin and bland blue eyes, faded brown hair cut short as a nun's and dimmer with gray. Only a touch of powder and of lipstick, only a wedding band and a small pearl ring for adornment.... Of course, they'd thought her courageous all along (most of them, anyway, or — most likely — all but my father), living with Billy as she did; but now, seeing her at the head of the table, Billy gone (there would be time enough throughout the afternoon to say it's unbelievable still), her courage, or her beauty, however they chose to refer to it, became something new — which made something new, in turn, of what they might say about Billy's life. Because if she was beautiful, 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.

The changing nature of perception — how what one chooses to believe creates a new reality, which in turn necessitates a new story — is one of the novel's most compelling themes. And one by one, as different characters are described and given their turn to explain their views of Billy's life, one feels McDermott's tale taking on a particular layered wisdom. The truth of Billy's life resides in the eye of the observer, but one thing is certain: Billy never lost his charm. Never blaming anyone for the twists his life took, he did not grow bitter, nor did he cut Dennis off after discovery of his lie, a lie that Dennis later admits to his daughter was wrong:

I shouldn't have done it, I suppose. I should have told him the truth. He would have gotten over it and met Maeve anyway. He would have found something else to moon about when he drank. Rosie was right, an alcoholic can always find a reason but never needs one. I thought I was preserving his innocence, I guess. but I should have remembered that when Billy sets his heart on something there's no changing him. He's loyal. He's got this faith — which is probably why he drinks. The problem is, it's hard to be a liar and a believer yourself, at the same time.

Unsurprisingly for a novel about Irish American immigrants, faith — for both those who retain it and those who lack it — is another central theme of the novel. In Charming Billy, those without it either suffer pangs of uncertainty or, like Dennis, are to some extent able to rationalize those pangs away. Those who retain faith, like Billy, suffer for their innocence and for their steadfast loyalty to memories, even ones that are proven false.

In the end, McDermott makes no pronouncements about Billy's fate — whether it was a broken heart that put him in his grave or simply an unfortunate tendency to drink — nor does she pass judgment on the actions of those who claimed they loved him best. Lives, McDermott seems to say, simply unfold, sometimes with grace, sometimes tragically. Ultimately, one of the narrator's lines could easily apply to the novel and to life itself: "My mother might have been different, my father was fond of saying, if her life had been different. I was a teenager before I began to point out that this was true of us all."—Sarah Midori Zimmerman

Library Journal
When Billy, the glue of a tight Irish community in New York, dies as a result of lifelong alcohol abuse, mourners gather around roast beef and green bean amandine to tell tales and ruminate on his struggle for happiness after he lost his first love, Eva. With carefully drawn character studies and gentle probing, McDermott, who won the National Book Award for this work, masterfully weaves a subtle but tenacious web of relationships to explore the devastation of alcoholism, the loss of innocence, the daily practice of love, and the redeeming unity of family and friendship. (LJ 11/1/97)
From the Publisher

“This is fiction as good as it gets.” —USA Today

“A luminous and affecting novel.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“There's no one like Alice McDermott for catching the ebullient particulars of the Irish-American sensibility…her touch is light as a feather, her perceptions purely accurate.” —Elle

“McDermott demonstrates anew that she is a writer in a league all her own.” —People

“...a rueful shrug of a novel whose strong, shrewd opening pages should be taught in college writing classes.” —Time

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780736644259
Publisher:
Books on Tape, Inc.
Publication date:
04/28/1999
Edition description:
Unabridged, 6 Cassettes
Product dimensions:
4.11(w) x 7.05(h) x 1.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

Charming Billy

Reading Group Guide
By Alice McDermott

Farrar Straus Giroux

Copyright © 1997 Alice McDermott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0374913897


Chapter One


SOMEWHERE IN THE BRONX, only twenty minutes or so from the cemetery, Maeve found a small bar-and-grill in a wooded alcove set well off the street that was willing to serve the funeral party of forty-seven medium-rare roast beef and boiled potatoes and green beans amandine, with fruit salad to begin and vanilla ice cream to go with the coffee. Pitchers of beer and of iced tea would be placed along the table at intervals and the bar left open--it being a regular business day--for anyone who wanted a drink.

The place was at the end of a sloping driveway that started out as macadam but quickly diminished to dirt and gravel. There was an apron of dirt and gravel in front of the building, potholed, and on the day of the funeral filled with puddles, and the first ten cars parked here, including the black limousine Maeve had ridden in. The others parked up along the drive, first along one side, then the other the members of the funeral party walking in their fourth procession of the day (the first had been out of the church the second and third in and out of the graveyard), down the wet and rutted path to the little restaurant that, lacking only draught Guinness and a peat fire might have been a pub in rural Ireland. Or, lacking dialogue by John Millington Synge the set of a rural Irish play.

How in the world she ever found this place was a mystery despite the question being asked again and again as Billy's friends and family filed in--the women in high heels walking on tiptoe down the sloping path the men holding their wives' arms and umbrellas that had already been well soaked at the side of the grave. All of them in their church clothes giving a formal air to the gray day and the ragged border of city trees and wet weeds. All of them speculating: perhaps the undertaker had suggested the place, or someone from the cemetery. Perhaps a friend friend or relative on her side (few as they were) who knew something about the Bronx, or maybe Mickey Quinn, who had his territory up here. But Mickey Quinn denied it, shaking his head, if you can believe there's a bar in any of the five boroughs that he hasn't been to.

The place smelled slightly of mildew, understandable in this weather and with this thick (even in April) bower of trees but the red-and-green tile floor was immaculate and the wooden bar gleamed under the fluorescent light. One long table draped with white tablecloths and set for forty-nine cut diagonally across the entire length of the room. One large window showed the parking lot full of cars, the other a wood that no doubt ended at a narrow side street or a row of dumpsters behind a row of stores, but seemed from in here to be dark and endlessly deep.

Maeve sat in front of this window, at the head of the table. She wore a navy-blue dress with long, slim sleeves and a round neckline, and anyone in the room who had not thought it earlier thought now--perhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she wore--that there was a kind of beauty in her ordinary looks, in her plainness. Or, if they didn't think to call it beauty, they said courage--more appropriate to the occasion and the day--not meaning necessarily her new-widow's courage (with its attendant new-widow's cliches: bearing up, holding on, doing well), but the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter: pale, downy skin and bland blue eyes, faded brown hair cut short as a nun's and dimmed with gray. Only a touch of powder and of lipstick, only a wedding band and a small pearl ring for adornment.

Of course, they'd thought her courageous all along (most of them, anyway, or--most likely--all but my father), living with Billy as she did; but now, seeing her at the head of the table, Billy gone (there would be time enough throughout the afternoon to say it's unbelievable still), her courage, or her beauty, however they chose to refer to it, became something new--which made something new, in turn, of what they might say about Billy's life. Because if she was beautiful, 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.

My father sat to her right. Although Maeve had made all the arrangements herself--had found the place and chosen the menu and requested the fruit salad he served as soon as all the guests had arrived so there would be no long interval for speeches or toasts, only a quick blessing from one of the priests, he was the one the waitresses spoke to, and the owner of the place asked every now and then if anything was needed. He was the one who would settle the bill at the end of the afternoon and tip the waiters and the girl who took the coats and the umbrellas. He was the one who asked Maeve, after he'd already poured her a glass of iced tea, if she would like a drink, and then got up to fetch it for her, nodding to the undertaker and the driver, who were having their lunch at the bar.

She said, "Thank you, Dennis," when he placed the martini in front of her and then waited just a moment, her pale hand just touching the stem of the glass before she lifted it. "Good luck," he said, raising his own glass of beer. She nodded.

There's not much sense in pointing out the irony here--or even in trying to determine if everyone was either oblivious to it or so keenly aware that it no longer bore mentioning. Billy had died an alcoholic. Last night, in his casket, his face was bloated to twice its size and his skin was dark brown. (Dennis himself, my father, when he had identified the body two days ago at the VA, had said at first, momentarily relieved from the fact that Billy was dead, "But this is a colored man.")

Billy had drunk himself to death. He had, at some point, ripped apart, plowed through as alcoholics tend to do, the great, deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room.

Everyone loved him. It was Mickey Quinn saying this, down at my end of the table. Mickey Quinn, who also worked for Con Ed, his territory being here in the Bronx, although he'd never heard of this place before. Mickey with a beer in his hand, and the irony either lost on him or too obvious even to bear mentioning. "If you knew Billy at all," he said, "then you loved him. He was just that type of guy."

And if you loved him, we all knew, you pleaded with him at some point. Or you drove him to AA, waited outside the church till the meeting was over, and drove him home again. Or you advanced him whatever you could afford so he could travel to Ireland to take the pledge. If you loved him, you took his car keys away, took his incoherent phone calls after midnight. You banished him from your house until he could show up sober. You saw the bloodied scraps of flesh he coughed up into his drinks. If you loved him, then you told him at some point that he was killing himself and felt the way his indifference ripped through your affection. You left work early to identify his body at the VA, and instead of being grateful that the ordeal was at long last over, you felt a momentary surge of joy as you turned away: This was not Billy, it was some colored man.

"He had the sweetest nature," another cousin, yet another Rosemary, said at my end of the table. "He found a way like everyone, he really did. He always found something good to say, or something funny. I He could always get you laughing."

"He was funny, though." It was agreed. "God, wasn't he funny?"

"Everyone loved him."

Not missing the irony of the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him, but redeeming, perhaps, the pleasure of a drink or two, on a sad, wet afternoon, in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life. Redeeming the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by this willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all.

The fruit salad was canned but served with a little scoop of lime sherbet, which was refreshing, everyone agreed. It cleared the palate. "The rolls were nice. There was some soda bread in one of the bread baskets, someone must have brought it. "Not as good as mine, but then I prefer it with caraway seeds, the way my mother used to make it..."

You could not redeem Billy's life, redeem your own relentless affection for him, without saving at some point, "There was that girl."

"The Irish girl."

"Eva." Of course. Kate, his sister, would remember her name.

"That was a sad thinh, wasn't it? That was a blow to him."

"A girl he met right after the war. Right after he came home. Out on Long Island."

"An Irish girl," Kate said, "visiting her sister, who was a nursemaid for some wealthy family from Park Avenue. He wanted to marry her, even gave her a ring. She had to go back home first, her parents were elderly, I think. But they wrote to each other. Billy was a great letter writer, wasn't he? He was always scribbling notes and mailing them off."

"He'd write a note on anything, wouldn't he? A paper napkin, a train schedule, and mail it off to you."

"I have one," Bridie from the old neighborhood said. She dug into her patent-leather purse and found a greeting-card-sized envelope with two stamps that showed a harp and a fiddle. She looked at the postmark--June 1975--and then extracted a limp paper square of a cocktail napkin that contained Billy's looping hand. "He sent it from Ireland," she said. "From Shannon Airport." And there was the Act Lingus logo in the corner. With a blue ballpoint Billy had written: "Birdie: Just saw your face pass by on a twelve-year-old girl in a navy-blue school uniform. Said her name was Fiona. She was meeting her father's plane from New York. Your smile, your eyes, your very face at that age--second edition. Love, Billy."

The napkin was ciculated, held as delicately as a fledgling, some even reaching into a purse or a breast pocket for reading glasses so as not to miss a word. All the way up the table to Maeve, who read it with a smile and a nod, and all the way back down again. Bridie took it back and read it once more before placing it into its envelope and back into a side, zippered compartment of her Sunday pocketbook.

Other letters from Billy were being mentioned: a note scribbed on a Playbill page, on a business card. The long missives he'd sent home during the war, whole lines blacked out by the censors but the homesickness coming through. He was so homesick. The postcards from the Irish trip, the place mats and napkins from various Long Island restaurants and diners, that summer he and Dennis were out there, fixing up Mr. Holtzman's little house. You rememher Mr. Holtzman. Dennis's mother's second husband. The shoe-store man.

Which was the same summer he met the Irish girl. Eva. The one he had hoped to marry.

"She went back to Ireland at the beginning of the fall." Kate would remember. "And not long after that, Billy took the job with Mr. Holtzman--Saturdays all day and maybe Thursday nights, I think it was. Dennis had arranged it for him. Billy was trying to put together enough money to send for his girl, to bring her back here, and Dennis set it up with Mr. Holtzman that Billy work at the shoe store when he wasn't at Con Ed."

"He was a great salesman," her younger sister, also Rosemary, said.

"Well," Kate explained, "Mr. Holtzman had lost some business during the war--I don't know if it was rationing or his being of German extraction or what. Anyway, he was glad to get Billy, an ex-GI with that handsome face of his. Those blue eyes."

"He was a good-looking young guy," Bridie from the old neighborhood said. "Maybe a little shy."

"And that's where he met Maeve, wasn't it? In the shoe store?"

"Later on," Kate said. "She used to come to the store with her father, and I remember Billy telling me how patient she was with him because, you know, her father was a drinker, too."

"A redheaded W.C. Fields," sister Rosemary said. "I remember him at their wedding." Rolling her eyes.

"Poor Maeve has had her share of it?"

A pause as a waiter reached between them to remove the fruit-salad bowls, every one of them whispering. Thank you, thank you, and then Thank you again as another waiter leaned in to put down the lunch.

"Doesn't this look good?"

"And the plates are nice and warm."

"They're doing a nice job, aren't they? I wonder how she found this place." "The undertaker, I'm sure. He probably gets a commission."

"He sent her the money," Kate continued. "Eva, that is. The Irish girl. He sent her about five hundred dollars. I think."

"Which was a lot of money in those days." Someone was required to say it.

"It certainly was"--and to second.

"He sent her the money in the spring sometime, this would have been in '46. And she wrote back to say she was busy making plans, you know, arrangements for coming back over. Lord, he was like a man waiting for a bus in those days. The sun couldn't rise and set fast enough. He was hoping she would come over before the summer ended, so they could spend their honeymoon together, but on Long Island, in the little house, Holtzman's house, but where they'd first met. I don't know where he thought they were going to live after the honeymoon--remember what it was like, trying to find an apartment then?"

It was remembered. It was also noted that the roast beef was very tender, very moist. Better this splash of juice than a thick gravy.

Continues...


Excerpted from Charming Billy by Alice McDermott Copyright © 1997 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Alice McDermott is the author of seven novels, including Someone, That Night, After This, Child of My Heart, and At Weddings and Wakes. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Bethesda, Maryland
Date of Birth:
June 27, 1953
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
Education:
B.A., State University of New York-Oswego, 1975; M.A., University of New Hampshire, 1978

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Charming Billy 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in college as part of a contemporary American literature class. It was one of the most engaging and thought provoking books I read that semester, and it¿s become one of my favorites. I highly recommend this book, but it isn't for those looking for a quick story or a fast-paced adventure. It is a story of themes and relationships, not action. Reading Charming Billy is like flipping through the pages of a family photo album. But the pictures seem to be out of order. The novel begins with a gathering of family and friends. They meet in a small restaurant in the Bronx for a luncheon following Billy Lynch¿s funeral. The author guides the reader from group to group, and the reader catches small bits of different conversations. The following chapters fill in the gaps left in the conversations. The story is, however, disjointed, meandering from the forties to the seventies and back to the sixties. It is as if the pictures fell out of the photo album and were replaced carelessly out of order. To compound this difficulty, the narration itself can be confusing. Sometimes the narrator seems to be merely recounting the story, but sometimes she seems to be addressing an unnamed person. Sometimes she refers to her father by his first name and sometimes as ¿my father.¿ This leaves the reader feeling very disconnected. (This is fitting since connection is a dominant theme in the novel). The reader struggles to keep characters and family relationships straight and to make meaning, groping through chapter after disconnected chapter until all the pieces fall into place, and the whole picture is revealed. Throughout the novel, McDermott raises issues related to love, faith, truth, and connection. The threads the author slowly weaves together are a re-creation of Billy¿s life and a contemplation of his unwavering faith. The reader is compelled to question this faith again and again. Perhaps faith, love, and even heaven are all merely constructions, ¿well intentioned deceptions¿ meant to ease the pain of living (p. 211). After the uncertainty and disconnection of the entire novel, the final chapter focuses on what is constant, the things one is surrounded by that ¿ride out time¿ (p. 237). To achieve this effect, McDermott describes the summerhouse on Long Island in Polaroid detail. In this feeling of consistency and connection, the reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions about faith, love, and connection, but of course, the author concludes her story with a question and not answer, leaving the reader not quite satisfied and unable to quickly forget the issues raised by the novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the sad story of Billy Lynch, a kind, gentle Irish-American man whose heart was broken by an Irish girl who instead of marrying him, went back to Ireland. Billy used all of his energies to preserve the romantic, poetic, and unrealistic world he had constructed for himself. Everybody liked Billy, he had a gift for making friends and keeping them. He was a dreamer and a trusting man, who also, unfortunately, drank a great deal. Billy was an alcoholic as we learn on about the third page of the story, but a lovable, charming one. Billy was trapped in his culture, in his impractical poet's mind, and in the bottle. This book captures the nuances of Irish-American workingclass culture perfectly. It portrays a people who are kind, generous and at heart, all good people. The book also tells the story of internal loyalties and of good deeds gone wrong that sometimes result in unforseen consequences. A wonderful read. The novel Charming Billy is brilliantly constructed and beautifully and sensitively told.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read Charming Billy twice and always try to persuade people to read it. The opening pages got me. I knew these people. I know a Billy and the rest of the characters. I have been to the funeral lunch. The descriptions is this book were beautifully crafted. It was written with compassion for human faults, forgiveness, denial and of course, love.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book immensly.The way the charachters are woven together is wonderful. I found the story touching and emotional. I plan on reading it again!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read all the reviews posted and do agree that this book can be confusing. However, this book was not meant to be a strong plot book. Instead it is one of strong themes. Each person whose life Billy had touched has their own perspective of Billy and hence their own reality including Billy's own reality. This is the kind of book that needs a discussion group after reading. The theme is strong and warrents some consideration.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is beautifully written but the subject is sad and disturbing. Even so, I enjoyed reading it and examining the motives and actions of this Irish clan.
Anonymous 10 months ago
One of the best books I have ever read!
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of-course More than 1 year ago
While Billy may have charmed everyone around him to make up for being a lush McDermott did nothing but annoy me and turn me off from the rest of her books.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A touching portrayal of an Irish-Catholic family dealing with grief,loyalty, dishonesty,denial,faith,alcoholism and a strong sense of compassion--this story appeals to both intellect and emotion. The backward looping first-person narration, however, is often awkward and annoying. The structure makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the story's frequent shifts of time, place,and character.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The presentation of this interesting and thought-provoking tale is flawed by its annoying backward-looping structure, which detracts from and makes it hard follow the story's chronology. On page 5 it becomes apparent that the story's narrator is the daughter of one of the main characters (Dennis). Later we understand that her audience is Matt (the boyfriend she later marries) who is barely mentioned. For determined and careful readers, the story is worth the effort.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Readers will differ in their expectations (see the other reviews!), but I found this novel superb -- the tactics of presentation, spinning the story of Billy to readers as a mosaic of discovered facts. I find the 'Irishness' convincing, rounded. Yes, the order of events is sometimes confusing, as we discover new information to put beside with earlier information. But that's the essence of such tales -- the structure of gossip and gradual, unfolding discovery. Read that opening chapter for superb management of character and scene.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being Irish, I thought I could really identify with this book having read the great reviews but I'm afraid I was disappointed. It's difficult to identify much with any of the characters. I think the initial storyline was good but reading it became tedious after a while.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I managed to painfully get through it...but do not waste your time. Boring and plotless.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This books entire story line was revealed in the first chapter and did not get any more exciting from there. The jumping from present to different points in the past made it confusing but not hard to follow, just irritating. I did not feel sorry for Billy (if that was even what the book was trying to express). It made me frustrated that some people were blaming everyone else (except Billy) for Billy's disease.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the first books I've started reading and refused to finish. I could not get into the characters and I found confusing to even figure out what was going on.