Elizabeth England's words about the first draft of her piece and the model text:

Alice McDermott, Charming Billy. This is a 1st person narrator that is used as a 3rd person in that she is telling someone else’s story. This is an extremely distant 1st person persona narrator (PN) who uses everyone else’s life-situations and sorrows as a metaphor for her own life. She is very anecdotal and chatty about Billy, Maeve, her father (Dennis), Eva, etc. There is a huge cast of characters and they all serve as a distancing tool to let the persona feel her own loss (of mother), her own sadness, her own grief. It’s her life story in disguise. Also, I love the non-judgmental quality of this 'I'. What does she think of Billy’s drinking and self-destruction, etc?

I focused on p.184-187. It is a run-on paragraph that tells it all; this is McDermott's pay-dirt, the aria that the rest of the book leads up to and supports. I've not earned it as she did and am just jumping in because I want to try this kind of connection, this lofty, God-like PN that can know a character so intimately and yet be so distant from him; be in his head and also 10 barstools away from him.

The ‘I’ in this exercise is narrated by the daughter-in-law to a large family. The character she focuses on, the way McDermott focuses on Billy, is her mother-in-law Claire; George Junior is Claire's husband.

The fighting, in the big house, long before the children grew up and married and moved out to their own smaller houses with similar crying and slapping and breaking of turkey platters and cereal bowls, started many years ago, between the parents Claire and George Junior. At first, they weren't really fights, at least that's what Claire would tell the girls at the A&P and the First National Bank of Boston. They were disagreements, a difference of opinion, a he-saw-it-black-and-I-saw-it-white sort of thing. But years later, when the real fights began, she would still contest, even to her children now grown, that those were not fights between their father and her. Those were the Good Days.

And besides, the relationship between Claire and George Junior deteriorated slowly. It wasn't as if the children even noticed at first. The two of them just stopped greeting one other with a kiss or a how was your day, but instead, stared at each other, Claire, seeming as if she had been intruded upon, interrupted in the middle of child-rearing and house-keeping and just getting on with things by George Junior, who, still holding the paper he read on the train to and from work, looked as if he'd come home at the end of a workday to the wrong house, the wrong wife, the wrong family. He would stand on the threshold of the dream house he and Claire had searched for, nagged realtors about, tried to get the previous owners to move out quickly so they could begin their life already, get a jump start on this togetherness that they thought would bury the doubts, the uneasiness Claire felt and saw reflected back at her in George Junior's eyes when they stood on the lawn of her parents' home and said I do as clear as the sky that June midday, so that later, when the fighting began, no one would could say they weren't once in love.

With the children scrambling to get out of the way, scattered like the seeds of all the melons they'd thrown at each other across breakfast tables, Claire and George Junior stared at each other, waiting until one or the other started it. Often, it took little to provoke Claire and when she got started, she couldn't stop. She would follow George Junior from room to room, making him take back a remark or admit that he was wrong, until finally he turned around and spit at her. In his three-piece suit that he pressed each evening himself and wore into the City to litigate for companies who knew nothing about Claire and the bruises on her arms or the teacups she hurled back at George Junior, one, two, three, four, the porcelain splinters she still found days later, George would spit at his wife.

To choose sides, to agree with one parent over another, was something that none of the children were particularly good at, even though they all agreed, late at night at whatever gathering they had been summoned home for: Thanksgiving, Christmas, the parade for July Fourth, that everything that was wrong with their lives, their relationships, their careers and their hopes for anything better, was, without question their father's fault. No matter how many times they'd seen him cornered by Claire, accused for crimes that no one could ever confirm that he committed, and then ignored by his wife for weeks until her own loneliness and need for companionship made her invite him into the dining room to eat with her and the children. He would gather up his newspapers and place mat and glasses, the accessories he carried from kitchen to dining room with such regularity that no one in the family, not even my husband William who always felt sorry for his father even though he too admitted that the silly bastard brought it all on himself, even William, the only boy, the son George Junior rooted for when the baby was still inside Claire, thought his mother deserved better.

So when Charlotte, the oldest girl with a family and a marriage, with its own infidelities and miscarriages, said one evening in late August that Claire and George Junior should just split up already, William and Susan agreed, though when they tried to say it out loud in Charlotte's backyard, with the sun gone orange and nested in the birch trees, none of us; William and me, Charlotte's husband Harry or Susan, the youngest of us all at 23, could take our eyes off that sun, stuck in the branches like a throat lozenge that won't go down.


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