Child of My Heartby Alice McDermott Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23, 242 pp.
Child of My Heart
The narrator of Child of My Heart sums up the story: "Petey, who always used to ask, challenging and pleading at the same time, ’Do you like me? Do you like my family?’ Who has wept with his fists tight. Who would be plagued all his life by anger and affection, by gifts gone awry, by the irreconcilable difference between what he got and what he longed for-by the inevitable, insufferable loss buried like a dark jewel at the heart of every act of love."
At least Petey’s still alive at the end of the story!
He is a restless little boy, a character in a summer idyll in which a cat is hit by a car, a dog is shot, the heroine loses her virginity, and her fairy-like cousin succumbs to a fatal disease and want of parental love. All this loss-of innocence, of dearly loved creatures-and yet, there is not a word of sentimentality or taste of treacle. On the contrary, Child of My Heart is a golden and luminous memory retrieved by a narrator who has achieved a cool and slightly ironic distance from one of those summers in the late fifties or early sixties-after Korea, before Vietnam.
The narrator is both the protagonist, fifteen-year-old Theresa, and the teller of the tale, an older, chastened Theresa, it would seem. The fifteen-year-old is the compleat child minder and child lover, the dream of every parent, the desire of every child. In this one summer, she has more or less complete charge of her cousin, Daisy-come from Queens to the tip of Long Island-as well as daily responsibility for "four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids..., and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist." Theresa, an only child, is an object of deference and adoration by her older, working, conveniently absent parents. Daisy, the unloved eight-year-old in a large family, becomes the willing acolyte to the tender and solicitous Theresa. The two wend their way from beach to porch, from shaded roads to bedtime conversations. Stories, fantasies, theological conjectures accompany them as they carry out their daily rounds of dog walking, cat tending, and caring for the equally unloved and adorable Flora. Across the alley, the five Moran kids, among them Petey, wait in attendance, snatching up any crumb of love that falls from the bounteous table Theresa daily sets for Daisy.
Theresa is brainy and beautiful, the object of more than one father’s roving eye. Her omnicompetent presence provides the children what no one else gives them-unconditional love and a complete cosmology ranging from pre-existing souls to angel tears, to heavenly lollipop trees.
The narrator pulls through these daily rounds, a thread of loss at first almost invisible and then so powerful that it abruptly ends the idyllic summer. Premonitions of tragedy play side by side with the sun, the sand, the sea, and their tranquil effects on Daisy, Flora, and Theresa. The Moran kids, a boisterous brood, are all noise and disorder, losing their baby sister at the side of the road, trapping rabbits, harboring the stray dog that brings on the denouement. Fifteen-year-old Theresa’s command-and-control system is virtually perfect-a feat of intuitive and imaginative shepherding, even of the unruly Morans. The narrator has achieved her distance from this idyll and its tragic end; she has spotted the fatal hubris of her fifteen-year-old self-the certainty that death can be staved off by love.
Some reviewers, lamenting Alice McDermott’s departure from the Jane Austen school of novel writing, fear she has abandoned a genre-which she brilliantly transported from the English gentry to second- and third-generation East Coast Irish Americans-for a mess of emotional pottage. True, the finely drawn scenes of social ritual that are among the pleasures of Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy appear only out of the corner of the eye in Child of My Heart. Daisy and Theresa are not much interested in the Irish-American dinner table conversation of parents and neighbors tracing the interconnections among cousins and long-lost classmates, nor is there anything like the exquisitely detailed rendering of the funeral lunch that follows the burial of "charming Billy."
Instead, the two girls live through the daily epiphanies and anxieties for which social ritual has been devised to either protect or console adults. Theresa and Daisy’s conversational drift from life before birth, rabbit traps, fair skin, ocean waves, the way of cats, mysterious bruises, and baby tears and pink rhinestone dancing slippers do not need ritual. So yes, McDermott has taken a turn, mining the primal emotions that are indirectly expressed in those richly descriptive social rituals of her earlier novels. If there is ritual here, then it is in the telling of the story itself, which remembers Theresa’s coming of age in the loss of both her innocence and omnipotence. It is Theresa looking back on the easy absolution given by her parents for her reckless dedication to the belief that love conquers death.
McDermott, in a recent interview, says that a year ago last September, "I just needed to do something different." "It might be," she goes on, "a stretch to say it has anything to do with September 11." Make the stretch. Child of My Heart depends on the same heart-clenching, throat-closing grief of those days. All of that is evoked in Theresa’s observation that Petey "would be plagued all his life...by the inevitable, insufferable loss buried like a dark jewel at the heart of every act of love." And so too, Theresa, who has lived to see that dark jewel and rendered this story in the elegant and limpid prose that is McDermott’s trademark. [end]