“Child of My Heart,” Alice McDermott’s fifth novel, begins with a fairy tale premise. The protagonist and narrator, 15-year-old Theresa, explains how her family came to live in a small house in a rich section of Long Island (the novel is set in the early ’60s): “[My parents] moved out on Long Island 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.” Why did her parents believe she deserved all this? Because Theresa is “unusually” pretty.
So far, her parents’ plot seems to be working: Theresa makes good grades at a private school, she’s happy and she’s beautiful enough to be compared to Elizabeth Taylor (the “National Velvet” years). Theresa is also magnetic; children and animals follow her wherever she goes, enchanted by her stories and her magical touch, by her beauty and her generosity.
Just as her parents recognized something unique about Theresa’s looks, Theresa pragmatically regards her beauty as a gift, or a not-so-secret weapon, something she can use to her advantage whether in comforting the fragile little girls and boys whom she baby-sits every summer, or in manipulating older men. She’s dreamy. McDermott’s depiction of her heroine’s deliberate and gentle ways — often employing mundane details to intoxicating effect — make her readers fall in love with Theresa. We want to believe that Theresa has a preternatural power to protect her charges from the inevitable tragedies of life.
At some point in the novel, however, you start to hold your breath whenever Theresa sets out to gather the children she baby-sits. You wonder whether Flora, the toddler daughter of an estranged couple, usually left on Theresa’s front porch strapped to a stroller, will one day just roll off, or whether one of the many neglected Moran kids, dirty and scrappy, will be discovered injured and lying under a tree in a stranger’s backyard. What will become of the yappy Scottish terriers, or the mangy stray dog, Rags? Could it be that Theresa, who the men in town (especially Flora’s father, an aging and often drunk abstract expressionist) eye thirstily, is the one at risk?
Eight-year old Daisy, Theresa’s cousin who comes to visit for the summer, is the most obvious target of life’s woes. Strange bruises spot her pale, thin skin. Theresa tries to ignore them, but McDermott has worse up her sleeve. Theresa tells Daisy the story of Macbeth, explaining Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained hand this way: “It was only her imagination … It wasn’t really there. It was all in her mind.” Later, when Daisy and Theresa spy a new bruise on Daisy’s arm, the little girl remarks giddily, “Out damned spot.” At that moment, “Child of My Heart” becomes a broken lullaby about the magic of childhood and how it can’t last.
After all, there’s only one of Theresa to go around; the messes that parents make ensure certain fates for their offspring, as if their (Irish) genes guarantee a dark destiny. For all the beauty and wonder of McDermott’s book, pretty things unexpectedly metamorphose into the ominous: “The wallpaper in my bedroom, and in theirs, was full of yellow roses, fist-sized yellow roses that became, as I stared and listened and tried to make out what they said, the fist-sized yellow faces of wrinkled babies and grinning gargoyles and startled guardian angels, of choir boys in war paint with open, oval mouths.” Sometimes McDermott’s writing is so graceful and enchanting that it’s easy to brush over her scarier message.
“Child of My Heart” is a mysterious book, one that brings back the smells and possibilities of summer, and the potential of young women like Theresa, who possesses extraordinary wisdom and confidence for a teenager. Yet, in many ways, as McDermott eventually reminds us, Theresa too is still just a child. When the novel ends, you can’t help but spend a few minutes imagining what future disappointments and triumphs are in store for her.
Our next pick: From the author of “Possession,” a novel of the 1960s and the dangerous allure of utopian and revolutionary dreams