Child of My Heart

by Alice McDermott

Published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux

242 pages, 2002











Real Enough to Breathe

Reviewed by David Abrams


I don't know how she does it, but Alice McDermott always manages to pierce my heart with the simplest of sentences. She is one of the most deceptive writers we've got tapping on a keyboard these days. By all appearances her novels are mere wisps, feathery in weight and style. Open one to any page and read a few lines. You'll think you're snacking on puff pastry. In reality, it's a bite of pound cake.

McDermott knows how to attach pendulous weight to the skinniest of words. Each verb, every noun counts for something and by the time you've reached the end of the story and accumulated enough verbs and nouns, you'll realize just how skillfully she plies her craft. For instance, we get this long, perfect sentence opening her 1987 novel That Night:

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands.

A lesser writer -- one who too cautiously approaches language and has a slippery grasp on her characters -- would take three pages to convey the amount of information contained in that one sentence. Or, take this one from her National Book Award-winning Charming Billy (1998):

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.

Compact, lyrical, perfect.

And so it is with McDermott's newest novel, Child of My Heart, about as compact, lyrical and perfect a book as we're likely to be blessed with this, or any other, publishing season.

By all appearances, it's a wisp of a story -- a young girl comes of age while babysitting for several families summering on Long Island -- but, as always, it's how the story is told which makes the difference. This is where McDermott shines like a full moon sparkling on the bay.

Her narrator, Theresa, looks back on her 15th summer with pained, wistful longing. These were the fulcrum months of her life, around which everything else teetered. She's beautiful ("a young Elizabeth Taylor was the immediate word") and confident. Her brash, take-charge attitude inspires her young charges (which include her visiting cousin, eight-year-old Daisy, and the Moran kids, her messy, hapless neighbors). Theresa and Daisy spend the summer days walking dogs for the other too-rich-to-care Long Island summer residents and babysitting Flora, toddler daughter of the community's Pollock-like artist (who is never given a name -- only "Flora's father" or "the artist"). The artist, old but remarkably virlie, eventually plays a cataclysmic role in Theresa's summer and subsequent life.

But in this short, fast novel (which McDermott has described as being written "almost in a single breath"), it is the children who play the central roles -- especially Theresa's young, doomed cousin.

Daisy, neglected by her parents back at their Queens home, is immediately tucked under Theresa's wing after arriving on Long Island for the summer. "Child of my heart," the older girl muses as she sets about braiding her hair, spinning marvelous fairy tales, and doing her best to safeguard Daisy from sorrow, death and betrayal -- all part of the adult world of which Theresa is aware, but unwilling to be part of… yet. She'll soon have no choice but to enter the grown-up universe -- this is the summer when everything teeters and tips -- but for now, she'd rather live in the idyllic Land of Childhood she's created.

As an only child, her parents have done their part to set her up for success in later years:

They moved way out on Long Island [when I was two years old] because they knew rich people lived way out on Long Island, even if only for the summer months, and putting me in a place where I might be spotted by some of them was their equivalent of offering me every opportunity.

Though her breasts are budding and her "easy-to-admire childish beauty was quickly becoming something a little thinner and sharper and certainly more complicated," Theresa is not yet ready to leave behind the world of innocence and games -- part of the reason why she so dearly loves her babysitting duties, I imagine. She delights in bathing her face with dew from the lilac bush or decorating the backyard tree with lollipops and licorice.

As in That Night, McDermott channels the adult world through adolescent eyes. Grown-ups are strange, complicated creatures and Theresa is their keen observer (though, knowing she'll soon be an adult herself, she's a melancholic observer).

They were dear people, both my parents, but the vividness of their dream of my rise, their absolute confidence in the inevitability of my success, made them resent what they saw as its consequences even that summer when I was fifteen and part of no other social set than my own. Turning away from me in anticipation of my turning away from them, they left me more alone that summer than perhaps I'd ever been.

Later, she tells Daisy, "You wish you could appear and disappear, like a little ghost. Be around them, but not be stuck with them… . It's the mystery of families."

McDermott brings Theresa to life with a voice so clear, so genuine that she no longer exists as a character on the printed page; she is real and fully formed within our imaginations. She makes that rare leap from book to brain, to that special fold of the cerebrum where we store those characters who are so convincingly alive that nothing could ever persuade us they exist only in lines of ink and fibers of paper. This is the genius of Alice McDermott: she is so closely attuned to her creations that readers effortlessly reconjure them and call them their own -- no matter how many other readers have done likewise. Theresa belongs to me and I'll forever keep her tucked in that cerebral fold. After reading Child of My Heart, I'm sure you'll feel the same way. | January 2003


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.