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.

Neither At Weddings and Wakes nor Charming Billy proceeds chronologically. Both initially seemed put together as if McDermott had written a novel, snipped it into parts, thrown them in a hat, and reassembled the bits between hard covers, except that the overall effect at the end was not of pieces at all but of a symphonic whole. In At Weddings, for instance, she counterbalances two marriages: a messy, long, unhappy one, witnessed by the couple's three children and ending (we know by the middle of the book) in a separation; and the marriage of a former nun and a mailman, middle-aged, subdued, and tragic, yet made real as a miracle performed before our eyes. (It's almost a miracle to convincingly portray middle-aged lovers without blunting the romance or blurring the bald facts of middle age.) In the end we realize that she has worked her pieces puzzle-fashion, shuffling chronology to her own ends, to tell a chronological story of an altogether different subject: the growth of the children's religious faith.

In contrast, with the exception of a few forays into the future (one of McDermott's favorite subversive tricks is to upend suspense by giving away the characters' fates before we get their climactic or essential scene), Child of My Heart takes place during one summer. Therese is a gifted baby-sitter, a Pied Piper who attracts both the neglected and spoiled children and the pets of the neighborhood with her offhand, easy care. She baby-sits for the child of an elderly famous painter whose arch, stylish wife rushes off in the beginning with the rough benediction "If my husband tries to fuck you while I'm gone ... don't be frightened. He's an old man and he drinks. Chances are it will be brief."

A middle-aged doctor whose children she babysits can't stop ogling Therese and suggesting that she come swim in his pool, and his trophy wife can't help assuming that the child is sexually available. When she thought her husband was sleeping with the then thirteen-year-old Therese, she had noisy sex with him, within hearing of the babysitter and her own two children.

My first impression was that she had dropped something or lost something and was saying, Oh, what happened, or Oh, where is it? Then I wondered for a second—until I remembered who she was—if she might be attempting to sing.

The exclamation "Oh, what happened, Oh, where is it?" recurs throughout the book, forming a leitmotif of sexuality that Therese contrasts with her own parents' endless, subdued conversation, which they conduct from the moment they wake up in the morning—across the room from each other in their single beds—to the moment they go to sleep again.

Therese comes of age with a stark binary vision of love: the gentle, sexless marriage of her parents, and the coarse world of her employers, where sex is a female-controlled commodity. The now divorced doctor's new fiancée bats his hand off her leg and tells Therese, "Three words to live by ... after-the-wedding." Therese elects not to take the advice. She attempts to redeem sex from the unpromising associations visible in the world around her, to create for herself a less mean way to love.

Though Therese's parents moved to eastern Long Island to increase their daughter's chances for a suitable, if not a brilliant, marriage, our story stops well before any wedding. Because this is an essentially contemporary novel, it ends not as Jane Austen's do, with the finality of marriage, but with a loss of virginity and another, far more serious loss. The reader senses that later, when Therese does marry, it will be to someone outside the world of her parents and also outside the world of their hopes for her. One looks forward to that story in McDermott's hands.