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Child of My Heart

Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart came out last fall, but I'm glad I didn't read it then, because it's very much a summer book, and even though spring has had a hard time settling down in New York this year, I'm glad to have the weather that plays such a considerable supporting role in this novel ahead of me, and not behind.

And yet the weather of Child of My Heart is long gone. The story appears to be set in the late '60s or early '70s; there is a simplicity about the heroine's family that would be inconceivable much later. They're Catholics from the outer boroughs of New York who have resettled, for an arresting reason, in East Hampton, far out on Eastern Long Island, from which they commute to the town of Riverhead, on the North Fork, to work. Every Sunday, another couple with a similar background comes to have dinner with them, and the four adults sit around the table tracing connections.

Like exiles, their delight was not in where they now found themselves but in whatever they could remember about the place, and the time, they had abandoned. Even after twelve years of friendship, they were still discovering, weekly it seemed, places where their paths had crossed or their histories had merged - a familiar candy store in Brooklyn, a friend of a friend's sister whom one of them used to date, another GI who also was on the Queen Mary, an office mate who'd once held a job that was also once held by a friend from high school. Circuitous, circumstantial lineages that seemed to encompass all the years of their youth and the breadth of the five boroughs, and were always linked - even then I thought there was something medieval about it - to the names of Catholic parishes, as if no identity of friend or cousin or co-worker could be truly established without first determining where he or she ad been baptized or married or (their phrase again) buried from - no landmark of their histories truly confirmed without the name of the nearest church to authenticate it. 144-5

This passage, which opens a kind of intermezzo, a short break from the foreground of the novel, nicely pitched between its exposition and its dénouement, shows Ms McDermott's mastery of the clearly-cadenced long sentence, a skill to which a great deal of the charm of Child of My Heart is owing. It also sounds the note of subtle elegy that runs throughout the book, building a retrospective intensity rarely encountered in novels set outside the American South. Child of My Heart is about both loss and the redemption of loss through keenly worked recollection.

Indeed, Child of My Heart could be a long chapter out of Proust - a different Proust, certainly, in narrating from a girl's perspective, but eminently Proustian in its marine drift (not really a drift at all, but a course driven by powerful if impalpable currents) from event to event, leading inexorably to the crest and crash of the wave on the shore. The three girls at the center of the story, as well as the children around them, are all nearly as helpless as rudderless boats, but Theresa, the narrator - fifteen at the time - knows where to find strength in her weakness. An unusually beautiful girl, she knows that she is some kind of prize. It is to place her in the way of the wealthy that her parents have settled far from their native community. It is to polish her for an upward social heave that they have enrolled her as a day student in a Catholic boarding school, where she has found an interest in both Shakespeare and the theatre. It is to maximize her opportunities of advancement that they stand to one side of her life, permitting her to make her own arrangements for baby-sitting and dog-walking jobs. Without looking down on her parents in any way, Theresa understands that she is to meld with the rich world. She also understands that she has been given immense freedom along with this responsibility. But she is only fifteen, and naturally cautious.

The action of Child of My Heart closely covers about two weeks in the early summer, which Theresa has decided to devote to two girls. One is Flora, the three year-old daughter of a very famous and very elderly painter (the works described bring de Kooning to mind). Theresa will be responsible for Flora from the late morning until her bedtime. Sometimes, she will take Flora to the beach, sometimes, they'll just stay at the painter's compound, and once they go for a walk in the woods. Accompanying Theresa is her other charge, her eight year-old cousin Daisy. Whereas Theresa is an only child, Daisy is one of eight, having six brothers, three older and three younger, and an older sister, Bernadette. She lives in Queens Village; her father is a transit cop.

I knew, in the way fifteen-year-old girls know things - intuitively, in some sense, in some sense based purely on the precise and indifferent observation of a creature very much in the world but not yet of it - that Daisy's parents resented any number of things, not the least of which, of course, was Daisy. She was only one of what must have been to them a long series of unexpected children. Eight over the course of ten years, when apparently what they had been aiming for was something more like two or three. 4

Unlike her brothers and the pudgy, piggishly smart Bernadette, Daisy does nothing to counter this resentment; she is almost beatifically indisposed to put herself forward. This attracts Theresa, who for all her beauty needs to be needed. It is Theresa's idea to invite Daisy for an extended visit to East Hampton. Daisy arrives with a suitcase full of plastic-wrapped outfits fresh from the discount store, token purchases by a stinting mother who knows that Theresa's entire childhood wardrobe will be available. It is only to a new pair of "brittle pink slip-ons studded with blue and turquoise jewels" that Daisy is really attached. "Princess shoes." Indeed, Daisy has a dark reason to invest these shoes with magic. She hopes that they will clear up the bruises that have mysteriously cropped up on her insteps, which she does everything she can to hide.

Perhaps because I didn't read the reviews very carefully, I got the idea that Daisy was going to be kidnapped somewhere along the way, or hurt in an accident. In fact, she has a blood disorder, something that Theresa only reluctantly acknowledges over the course of Daisy's stay, in spite of a clear warning from a doctor whose dog she walks that Daisy needs a checkup. This doctor, lately divorced and wretchedly alone at the beginning of the novel, perhaps only notices Daisy's off coloring because he's interested, slightly more interested than he ought to be, in her cousin. Nobody else except Theresa notices, not her parents, not Daisy's parents - Daisy is habitually overlooked. Theresa's reluctance to admit that Daisy is ill is really only a child's desire to avoid getting someone into trouble; like Daisy, she expects that the adults will be irritated when they find out that Daisy isn't well. Theresa monitors the advance and faint, impermanent decline of Daisy's bruises with magical thinking, willing them to fade. She devises a cure for the insteps: Daisy is to stand at the edge of the surf and let the wavelets wash over her bare feet. 

Alongside her suppressed anxieties about Daisy, perhaps even emboldened by them, Theresa parries with the adults in Flora's household. Aside from a sympathetic cook, who knows her parents and wonders if it's proper for Theresa to spend so much unchaperoned time in the artist's very Bohemian ménage, the grownups are menacing in different ways. It is obvious that the artist is drawn to Theresa; his fourth marriage, to a vastly younger dancer, has already frayed to the point where she is openly jealous not only of Theresa but of the more mature French maid, Ana. The morning after Daisy arrives, Flora's mother decamps for the city, disappearing until the end of the story - a fateful absence. Taking what little claim the household has to respectability with her, the mother leaves behind a vacuum in which the artist and Ana and Theresa come much closer together than the cook, if she really knew, would tolerate - but the cook, too, is away for a spell, tending to an ailing husband. This is where the weather hangs as heavy as the air in a Wallace Stevens poem.

I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. I wondered if Ana had left, since there were still cups and dishes in the sink and the floor needed sweeping. I went through the door and sat on the steps of the porch. The car was still there. The lights were still on in his studio. I stood up and walked, as Daisy had done, toward the path, leaning a bit to see if the canvas was against the wall. It wasn't. I walked a little farther. I could smell the paint, but I heard no voices. Keeping my footsteps light, I passed by the side door and saw he was in there, standing over the same canvas, which was now lying on the concrete floor. His legs spread, his hands on his hips, staring down at his work in his white shirt and his khaki pants like some old colossus. I couldn't see the bed in the far corner, but I had the impression that someone else was in there with him, and I walked on by, toward the caretaker's path, as if that had been my destination all along. But then I thought I heard my name called and I stopped. I listened for a minute, sure I was mistaken, and then I heard him say, "You can come in." 134

Does Theresa know what she's playing with? Yes and no. The artist, "some old colossus," draws her like a god of old, with sheer irregular majesty. It will be to him, shortly before he and Theresa resolve their erotic minuet, that Theresa first confides her fears about Daisy, but while he says something vaguely sympathetic, he is no more helpful than any superb divinity; it is not for him, an artist, to stoop to fix other people's problems. Rather he makes trouble, effortlessly, pointlessly, and almost noiselessly.

But all his movements were sure, and I trusted whatever design he followed, out of his own head, relieved, for just a few minutes, of the need to follow any design of my own. At one point there was some disruption of the sunlight that came through the open doorway, but it was momentary, a shadow passing as it will in a dream, unable to get in.

When it was gone, I got up and slipped back into my clothes, standing for just one moment under the opaque light with my shirt in my hands. He was still stretched out on the bed, the damask draped over his shoulder and his thigh. He turned to me, the back of his hand on his forehead, and watched, and I watched back. Finally, he said, "Although I can hardly see you, from here, without my glasses, I suspect you're beautiful, standing there." 226

The indirection of these scenes is dazzling and enchanting, bringing us into the awed, pulsing haze of Theresa's consciousness. The sense of enchantment is heightened further by the contrasting intimacy of Theresa's portrayal as a babysitter. When she is not watching the painter, she is tending to Flora and telling tales to Daisy. Or she is counseling one of the hapless Moran children. The Morans live in a tumble-down house next door to Theresa with their drunk of a grandfather and their cupcake of a mother - they have several fathers among them - and they are always dirty and uncared-for. The absence of normal adult interaction in Child of My Heart frees Theresa's summer world and opens it to a kind of dangerous magic. But it is Daisy, whose loss Theresa anticipates from the beginning, who works the spell.

Petey Moran's puppyish determination to trap a rabbit and present it to Daisy brings her story to its sad climax, and it is only long after she has gone that he finally produces a litter of bunnies on Theresa's doorstep.

Three baby rabbits, newborn, blind, wrapped in what appeared to be their own sticky cocoon. I went into the house, through the kitchen and the living room and into my bedroom, where I dumped the ribbons out of my ribbon box - just a shoebox covered with fabric - and carried it outside. I went around the perimeter of our lawn, pulling at the long grass, filling the box. I knew without asking that this was Petey's gift, indistinguishable as it was from a burden. Petey, who always used to ask, challenging and pleading at the same time, '"Do you like me? Do you like my family?" Who had wept with his fists tight. Who would be plagued all his life by anger and affection, by gifts gone awry, by the irreconcilable difference between what he got and what he longed for - by the inevitable, insufferable loss buried like a dark jewel at the heart of every act of love. 242

Child of My Heart is such an act. (May 2003)

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