This Charming Man - Reviews

Irish Independant

In structure and appearance, This Charming Man is pure chick-lit. Four women each have a dark secret involving their separate relationships with a high-profile, high- charisma Irish politician, one Paddy de Courcy.
One of the women is Grace, a former lover, who is now a ruthless journalist. She wants the inside story on de Courcy's impending marriage. Another is his fiancée, Alicia, appearing in celebrity magazines beside the handsome TD. The third is the journalist's twin sister Marnie, married with children and working in England for a financial brokerage firm, but miserable -- she can't shake the memories of her first lover, Paddy de Courcy. The fourth is his girlfriend, Lola, a stylist, someone who dresses, accessorises and placates rich women for high-profile social events.
Lola has been Paddy's girlfriend for the past 16 months, but now she's on the verge of a breakdown caused by being dumped by him and, even worse, reading newspaper reports of his forthcoming nuptials to another woman. This doesn't stop her resenting anybody who describes her Molichino highlights as purple, or observing that, "It's not on to hold your wedding reception in the K Club if you're not a horsey Kildare type." To ease her stress, she heads for an uncle's cottage in the country for a rural idyll:
"Waves and swelling and white bits and sun glinting. Smell of ozone and salt and all that. Gazed upon nature and beauty and everything and thought, I miss shops."
Lola isn't just short of a boyfriend. She's also short on definite and indefinite articles. She talks like a text message, as does everybody she relates to -- including her dead mother, with whom she has conversations in graveyards. She's fairly promiscuous about the graveyards she uses for this purpose, not confining herself to the one her mother is actually interred in.
She spares her dead mother her otherwise constant references to trendy venues, shoes, luggage, cars and accessories, these references establishing that Lola -- except in graveyards -- is hip and happening. Relentlessly hip and happening.
To any reader north of 25, Lola is a hip and happening bore of stunning proportions, which makes her a useful foil for the quite different character of Grace, the journalist, who would sell her grandmother for a story and who knows she doesn't appreciate her boyfriend sufficiently. But it's the journalist's twin sister, Marnie, who is at the heart of this book, as the reader gradually realises that this mother of two daughters is an alcoholic, struggling to survive life and happiest when she is out of it on booze.
No modern Irish writer has handled alcohol-addiction as Marian Keyes does.
She evokes the mindset of the addict with such detachment, sympathy and shockingly truthful observation that the ostensibly central theme of this novel -- the multiple toxic layers of a womanising politician of massive ambition and minimal moral core -- becomes background noise to the playing out of the personal tragedy and redemption of the character named Marnie.
These four very different women, one awfully charming man and a secret that binds them all together, makes for a fascinating story. And in the middle is the future Mrs de Courcy, Alicia, determined to be the perfect politician's wife. But does she know the real Paddy?
Marian Keyes doesn't like politicians, that's for sure. Having worked constantly with the breed for more than 20 years, I love them. Not all of them, all of the time. But a lot of them, from all parties. Let's face it, no other profession attracts so many high-ego, high-octane, high-intellect and highly sexed individuals, filled with permanent excitement, rage, hope, idealism, venality, wit, profanity, flaws and fun.
Paddy de Courcy -- if we're to judge by the women he loves, leaves and mutilates -- is all of that, although, because we see him through their eyes and through the consequences of his acts, he remains somewhat shadowy.
This massive, 700-page novel shows why Marian Keyes has become a literary phenomenon whose books go immediately to the top of the international best-seller lists. Chick-lit readers can rely on her to provide fast-moving love interest locked, by constant reference to issues of style and showbiz, into the zeitgeist.
But within that recurring package is a novelist constantly pushing against predictability, a master ofcharacter-delineation, who can mix farce and sex with serious social issues.
This Charming Man is Dickensian in its scale, plotting and determination to force the reader to grasp some of the grim realities of today's Ireland. Chick-lit it isn't. A great read it is.

Publication: Irish Independant Date: April 2008

Irish Times

FICTION: This Charming Man By Marian Keyes, Michael Joseph, 676pp. £17.99. Marian Keyes' new novel is her best yet, with its ingenius multi-layered plot and theme of abusive relationships.
HE'S CHARMING and he's a monster. He sucks you in to his world despite yourself, seducing and flattering you into believing that you, and only you, can satisfy his carnal desires - desires he convinces you were really yours all along. Ever wanted to dance with the devil? Marian Keyes gives a brilliant account of what this might be like and, believe me, you don't want to go there.
Well, actually, you do. Safely. In a book. And that's the secret to Marian Keyes. She lures you into thinking that you're safe, then packs a wallop that has you weeping and questioning your life two-thirds of the way through. Keyes's multi-layered plotting has never been as ingenious as in this, her ninth novel, and 10th book.
She communicates on a literal, sensual, visceral level. Good writing gives you a peek into another person's soul. Great writing transports you into a world that you're more than observing - you're living within it, discovering parts of yourself you hoped didn't exist.
Even though you're more likely to see her reviewed in Heat than in the TLS, Keyes has achieved great writing because she has resisted the temptations of stylistic showing off, flippancy and the repetition of a successful formula. Every paragraph and page has to have been worked through in order for it to look this easy. She keeps setting herself new challenges and growing from book to book. In her last novel, Anybody Out There? (2006), Keyes successfully brought us inside the head of a young widow, while simultaneously positing a critique on the exploitative fashion industry - a tall order.
With This Charming Man , she takes even bigger risks and amplifies her characterisation. In her acknowledgements, she apologises that "this book took an embarrassingly long time to write". Proper order. The extra time she took really shows. It's her best book yet.
Her biggest risk is to give us - on the surface - a novel about a smooth-talking, charismatic politician and the women in his life, while all along offering deep insight into the existential issues of identity, loneliness and sexuality - sexistentialism, if you like. As she builds her argument, she holds her fire for her real agenda - the question of why so many women engage in abusive relationships with men, with booze and with each other.
The structural device she uses is clever and complex: almost from the outset, we know that one of the women has been abused by her lover, but Keyes keeps us guessing which one. A series of anonymous first-person descriptions of being abused are placed at crucial points, until we gradually realise that these cries from the heart could apply to any character in the novel, to any one of us. By the time we learn who this victim is, we have so strongly identified with her that we can draw only one conclusion. We are all potential victims, powerless when addicted to a man, to sex, or even to social prestige.
Yes, there's a bad guy in this book, but the bad guy exists only because the women in his life are willing to play along.
Keyes's depiction of alcohol addiction, as experienced by Marnie, a mother of young children, is more compelling than that in her first book, Rachel's Holiday . The retching, the hidden bottles, the lying and through it all Marnie's desperate belief that she is still a "good mother", is painful to read.
Yet in alternating chapters Keyes also creates Lola, a personal shopper/stylist who caters to wealthy Dublin women in need of six costume-changes per day for their charity work. When Lola runs away to Ennistymon, Co Clare and finds herself blackmailed into running a transvestite support group, Keyes is writing her funniest lines ever.
And then there's Grace, the tabloid journalist, who has to deal with her sister, Marnie, as well as attempting to find true sexual intimacy in her life while dealing with a bitchy female boss. And Alicia, the perfect woman, who discovers she is engaged to "this charming man", only when she reads it in the Sunday papers.
The device of intertwining several women's lives was invented by Jane Austen, reprised by Maeve Binchy and has been used again and again by best-selling women authors. It may look easy, but there's real skill in creating chapters and scenes which, like shattered mirrors, reflect back various perspectives and shards of life. What Keyes does in this book that is new is to vary the style of writing so dramatically from character to character, chapter to chapter - even using distinctive typefaces for characters. This disparate style of narrative reflects the way we think today, as we switch from channel to channel, not just on TV but in our relationships and careers. Her skill at creating a feeling of universal anxiety and impermanence, while also keeping the page-turning flow of the novel's various themes, is what makes Keyes shatter-proof.

Publication: Irish Times Date: April 2008

Sunday Tribune

PADDY De Courcy, deputy leader of the New Ireland party, is getting married, and four very different
women are shaken to the core by the news. Marian Keyes sets off this emotional depth
charge at the beginning of her latest novel, and we watch the shockwaves ripple outwards and affect these women. After being dumped by Paddy for Alicia "horse face" Thornton, Lola Daly is told by her friend Bridie that she would never have cut it as a politician's wife anyway: "Your clothes are too cool and you have purple highlights"

Lola is inconsolable, she keeps a diary to an almost obsessive compulsive degree, and she could well be the finest character of her type since Adrian Mole. She rings Paddy 50 times a day, and as she and her business start to unravel she develops into a wonderfully engaging character - the kind that Helen Melding could only dream of creating. She's hapless and hilarious, and her self-imposed exile in a small village is full of warmth and wit.
Grace Gildee is made of sterner stuff. As a features writer with The Spokesman, she spends her time competing with Casey Kaplan, friend of rock stars and supermodels, and a man who always gets the scoop while looking cool and decadent (as if such a character could exist in Dublin media circles - ahem). Grace and boyfriend Damien are struggling with nicotine withdrawal after agreeing to give up cigarettes as a gesture of solidarity for her aunt Bid who is suffering from lung cancer. ("Don't try and hug me, I'll puke.") Meanwhile, Grace's twin sister Marnie watches her family life disintegrate in London, as her attempts at finding happiness are marred by a tendency towards self destruction.
Keyes swaps the story back and forth between these women, teasing out connections between them and De Courcy, and leaving tantalising gaps in the narrative at all the right moments. Her storytelling skills never falter. There is no better writer for constructing comic scenes and setting up a punch line. She is served beautifully by her wonderful sense of the absurd and her flawless sense of timing. Her serious scenes also have perfect dramatic symmetry, and she fills in characters with deft brush strokes. Paddy De Courcy is a particularly good example of a character who could have so easily descended into stereotypical cad territory, but instead Keyes serves up a portrait of a complex and disgusting man with only a few lines of dialogue.

The subject of domestic violence is broached in one perfectly nuanced moment, when what begins as an incident of high farce shifts almost imperceptibly into a scene of quiet but shocking brutality. Each section is preceded by a horrific incident of domestic violence, and it's the unflinching honesty of these scenes that makes them so affecting, without once feeling like bad melodrama. Keyes also writes of one character's depression so convincingly that their pain simply oozes off the page. She is a sublimely gifted writer. She can write sexy and funny (sometimes at the same time), her comedy is warm, her pathos gentle, and she expertly balances misery and pain with hope and light..

Most reviews of Marian Keyes's novels are written with an undercurrent of shame, as if the reader had felt somewhat tainted by the experience of enjoying her work. Phrases like "well written for the kind of book it is" and "easy to read" are used to apologise for having enjoyed such low-brow "popular drivel! 'The truth is that it's time to stop apologising: Marian Keyes writes real literature, and her writing is of the highest order. Someone should give this woman a Booker.

Publication: Sunday Tribune Date: April 2008