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