Child of My Heart — Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is known for crafting her stories in simple but powerful ways. Her novels are void of bells, whistles, and pretty packaging. Her prose is strong, sure and intense in its brevity; literary tricks and fancy poeticism are not necessary to carry her work. She’s a remarkable writer, one America should be quite proud to claim, and one you should give a glance at. While I was not the biggest fan of the novel I just completed, I cannot deny McDermott’s talents.

Child of My Heart (2002) is McDermott’s fifth novel. At less than 250 pages, it seems as if it would be a quick, pleasant read, but don’t let its size fool you. What remains unwritten, what McDermott cleverly places between the lines and in her readers’ heads, makes this novel quite weighty. Taking place over one summer, the novel is told from the point of view of Theresa, a beautiful fifteen year old girl caught in that awkward crevice between childhood and womanhood.

Theresa’s parents, while not wealthy, had moved out to Long Island in the hopes that their beautiful child would mingle with the rich and important, that she would be able to get a toehold in society. They pushed her services as dog-walker and babysitter on the movers and shakers, the doctors and famous artists, and her beauty and saint-like reception by children and animals alike kept her in high demand.

The novels opens, “I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.” Daisy, the title character, is a quiet child who seems to have been forgotten in the chaos of her many siblings. Theresa has invited her to spend the summer because she understands the need for individual attention. Not long after Daisy arrives, Theresa notices the bruises. Dark and angry, they appear at the slightest touch and never seem to improve. Theresa realizes the serious implications and attempts to heal her cousin through various rituals. She does not alert her parents to the illness – she knows they will only send her home and deep in her heart, she seems to accept that Daisy’s time on earth is precious. She sets out to give her cousin the best summer imaginable.

I didn’t care for Theresa’s character. She seemed too polished, too perfect. The novel touches on her blossoming sexuality; she undresses on the beach, with her charges, and seems unaware of her teenage body until someone comments on it. After that comment, she realizes the power her sexuality grants her. The calculated way in which she loses her virginity, the start of what propels her into adulthood, was heartbreaking. As a reader, I wanted her to hold on to her innocence. (But McDermott wanted her readers to be aware that Theresa’s innocence as already at stake with Daisy’s worsening state.) She sleeps with Flora’s father, an old man, well into his 70s, whose attraction to her was carefully detailed in looks and the slightest of touches. She later finds a piece of canvas, cut from the bed she’d given herself to him on, with just the slightest smear of blood. Someone had cut it out and put it with Flora’s mother’s scarves. (Scarves that had been used to bind Flora at one point.) This scene is only a couple of sentences, but I was amazed at how powerful those sentences were – of what they said without saying.

The novel concludes after Daisy’s death, with Theresa taking three newborn rabbits into her care. These rabbits were mentioned in the first paragraph and the reader already knows their fate, they know how hopeless a cause it is. But there is something of a glimmer of hope in the face of sorrow – something McDermott manages to work into her novel seamlessly. Child of My Heart is a novel of loss, sorrow, and growing up, but it somehow manages to also be a novel of hope, release, and magic.

Child of My Heart is a sharp intake of breath followed by a shaky exhale.

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