Coming of Age on Long Island

Child of My Heart represents a radical—if characteristically quiet— departure in Alice McDermott's fiction

Child of My Heart, Alice McDermott's fifth novel, feels like a departure from her recent, major books. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and Charming Billy are intricate novels, full of vivid characters just barely contained in deftly unfolding structures that feel original, handmade. Although this new novel shares some of those books' deepest concerns (each of them presents varieties of romantic love, to which a younger person pays avid attention), its structure, its narrative, and its characters are strikingly different.

In That Night and Charming Billy there's a clever narrator, roughly of McDermott's generation (she's now forty-nine), who is a very minor character in the novel. These slender narrators, barely there, slide in and out of doors witnessing the action. But in Child of My Heart we're given a straightforward first-person narrator, who is also the central character of the book. Therese is fifteen and a beauty. (McDermott has always been interested in beauty, but until now she's written only about those who don't have it.) She's got a charming whimsy, a down-to-earth fifteen-year-old's sense of humor (changing the lyrics of a sad old song from "fond hearts" to "hard farts"), and mystical ideas about art, sex, life, and death. She's the only child of two Irish-Americans who early recognized her as extraordinary and moved to eastern Long Island, like speculators.

My own parents had moved out to Long Island when I was two years old. They had done so because they knew by then that I was the only child they would ever have—they were already in their mid-forties—and that I would be good-looking. Unusually so. A young Elizabeth Taylor was the immediate word. (Later, among the East End crowd, it was a young Jackie Kennedy.) ... Being who they were—children of immigrants, well-read, but undereducated—my parents saw my future only in terms of how I would marry ... They moved way 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.

The characters who seem to open McDermott's imagination to its full extent are often of her parents' generation. At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy don't concern themselves with upper-middle-class, multicultural society. Rather, they capture a world of middle-class, less assimilated (if well-read) Irish-Americans—a Con Edison worker who recites Yeats; a streetcar driver; an alcoholic who has lost the great love of his youth, and the plain woman he is married to until his death; an executive secretary; a nun who leaves the convent to live in a Brooklyn apartment with her sisters. This specific, full world, along with McDermott's stringent modesty and moral rigor, allows her to ponder deep contemporary and eternal questions (in her hands they seem to be the same ones) without fuss or bombast. Her talent is not a messy, capacious one: she is more Jane Austen than George Eliot in her vantage, her temperature, and her concerns. Like Austen, she seems to write from firmly within an intact society and would defend its pageantry (the limousines at a wedding contribute to the glamorous lifting vision that forms the children's ability to believe in both love and God), though she's willing to reveal some of the same details as deceptive, the fluff of romance: for example, when the children chew the sugared almonds from the wedding, so pretty in their tulle bags, and spit out the vile woody food. McDermott displays a vibrant romantic hope exactly matched by a realist's awareness of daily devastation.

In those two great books we heard about the wealthy at a remove. But in Child of My Heart the rich are viewed closer up, in full color, while Therese's parents are deeply recessed in the narrative, occupied in a conversation of which we hear only bits. Therese moves—as her parents hoped she would—not among the people we're used to in McDermott's books but among doctors, artists, their wives and children.

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