Monday, October 30, 2006

Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott

I know that most of you passionate readers will understand when I say there some books that are just too lovely to talk about, just no way of getting at what they have to offer short of plunging into them, or in this case, licking them, savoring them. Alice McDermott’s new novel Child of My Heart is just such a book, and I’m hoping to get you to pick it up by saying very little. If I could I would dangle it like a sweet, red lollipop in front of you, just as on the paperback version there is a tree strung with orange and red and yellow lollipops, the rare fruits of imagination. And who says you can’t judge a book by its cover anyway? Certainly, it was the cover of this little book that grabbed me, although it was the name of the author that cemented the purchase.

I have been one of those readers fortunate enough to have large swatches of time laid out before me to read—sometimes whole summers full of nothing but sun and books. That means that when I find an author whom I really like, one that seems to be teaching me as well as enchanting me, I have often been able to read up their life’s work in a few days, a few weeks at most. I still find it a wonderful way to read. Not surprising then that just a few weeks ago I talked to you about one of McDermott’s earlier novels, Charming Billy, and today I feel that I must tell you about this newer one.

The setting is Long Island, sometime in the 90s, and the heroine is a fifteen year old girl who is the only child of aging American-Irish parents who did not have her until they were in their forties. They move to Long Island to, in their minds, assure her future.
Being who they were—children of immigrants, well-read but undereducated—my parents saw my future only in terms of how I would marry, and they saw my opportunities narrowed by Jewish/Irish/Polish/Italian kids who swarmed the city and the close-in neighborhoods where they could afford to buy a home. 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.
This urge to put their daughter, Theresa, in the paths of the rich also accounts at least partly for their not only allowing her to baby-sit for families from the time she is only ten years old, but actively encouraging her to take on more and more charges as the summers roll by, to visit more and more of the big summer homes that her parents can only admire from afar. And Theresa is from the beginning a star at what she does. A beautiful, dark girl who is wise far beyond her years, but who also strangely innocent and unworldly.
I must have fit right into the pretty summer dreams those pretty young mothers had back on Fifth Avenue in March….Pretty, intelligent, mature in speech although undeveloped physically (another plus), well immersed in my parents’ old-fashioned Irish Catholic manners (inherited from their parents, who had spent their careers in service to this very breed of American rich), and, best of all, beloved by children and pets.

I don’t know how to account for it, my way with small creatures. Nor did it ever occur to me to try. Because I was a child myself when I began to take care of other children, I saw them from the start as only a part of my realm, and saw my ascendance as a simple matter of hierarchy—I was the oldest (if only by a year or two) among them, and as such, I would naturally be worshipped and glorified. I really thought nor more of it than that. And when they clung to me and petted me, when the boys, lovesick, put their heads into my lap and the girls begged to wear my rings or comb my hair, I simply took it as my due. I was Titania among her fairies…..and the dogs and cats and bunnies and gerbils that seemed to follow their young owners in their affection were only doing what nature, in our little realm, prescribed. ……If there was any trick, any knack, to my success as a minder of children, it was, I suppose, the fact that I was as delighted with my charges as they were with me.
This entire little book is simply the unfolding of a few days in Theresa’s life. For one family she merely walks their dog, Red Rover, and occasionally tends their children on a weekend. For another, she comes by every morning to walk two Scotty dogs. Yet another family has her tending three cats while they are in the city, babysitting both their children and their cats on the weekends. And finally, she cares daily for a young girl, Flora, whose father is a famous old painter and whose mother, decades younger, feels imprisoned on Long Island and escapes often to the city. The insights Theresa has as she goes from house to house, child to child, animal to animal, are charming and yet somehow alarming in their profundity. Added to her paid duties, she also supplies daily care and attention for a handful of dirty kids who live next door and who love her, adore her, hang on her at every chance. The pied-piper of Long Island who finds it quite natural to be followed and adored. And finally, for the few days that this novel covers, a young girl cousin, Daisy Mae, joins Theresa on her daily rounds, invited by Theresa so that the shy and frail Daisy can escape for a time from the city, her seven siblings and her overworked, cranky parents.

I simply cannot describe how lovely the relationship is between Daisy and Theresa—two minds who can together spin magic out of the air. Slowly, the reader discovers (along with Theresa), that Daisy is quite ill—bruises on her body that do not heal, a tiredness that will not go away even in the sun and sea-breezes. I cannot but think that this novel is deeply autobiographical. The precociousness of Theresa, her deep understanding of her own parents and of all the adults around her seems more remembered than made up. And despite her girlish thinness, she is well aware of the new looks she gets from older men, their unapologetic appraisal of her pretty face, her budding body. If anything, she is even calmer than they in her appraisal of their appraisal, already wiser than they. Interested in their attention, but not really alarmed, she realizes a power she has with them, understands more about them than they about her. She also understands on a deep level that she is already wiser than her parents, has already stepped away from their world, careful not to tell them more than they need to know, protecting them even as they see themselves as protecting her. As she listens through the thin walls of their little cottage to the calm, constant river of their voices, she understands that she is as much caregiver now as cared for.

Whenever reviewers strive to find authors with whom to compare McDermott the name Jane Austin invariably arises, and it easy to see why. Her novels begin in very small worlds, usually in a family or two, more novels of families and customs than of worlds and wars. One reviewer talks of how beautifully written her novels are and how quietly unsettling. Yes indeed. Wrenchingly beautiful and unsettling due to their wisdom, the acuteness of the observing eye. I was in the middle of two other novels when I started this one; those two remain unfinished. McDermott must be read.

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