Child of My Heart
Alice McDermott
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Buy *Child of My Heart* online

Child of My Heart

Alice McDermott
Farrar Straus & Giroux
256 pages
December 2002
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart is a beautifully written novel about growing up, about how adult temptations and even death are just around the corner, and about enjoying life in each moment. Its protagonist is a teenage girl wise beyond her fifteen years. A beautiful girl, Theresa loves all children and all animals, and they return her love. This book takes place over a summer when she takes care of a pale, sickly cousin, Daisy; a neighbor abandoned by her mother, Flora; and numerous dogs and cats. Daisy is the "child of her heart"; Theresa treats her as both a little sister and as her own child.

Although bad things happen to a few of the animals and ultimately to Daisy, the bulk of the novel follows a slow summer of joyous, creative adventures set amidst Theresa's growing sense of becoming adult and desirable, especially to the men whose children or dogs she cares for. As did McDermott's most famous novel, Charming Billy, this centers on an Irish-American family, but does not rely as much on the stereotypes of that culture.

This novel is more charming and engaging, for the most part, than Charming Billy. Its pace is slow,leisurely, the way we'd all like to spend our summers. There are no chapters. Rather, events pile on top of each other, run into each other, with only a bit of extra white space between an afternoon and an evening and the next morning. The language gives the feel of the natural course of an innocent children's summer, but one with threats of sex and disaster hanging around, just off to the side, intermingled with those idyllic sand castles and lovable stray dogs. But the main focus of each of the girls' day is fun, food, spontaneity and love.

Yet unfortunately, this novel has a nearly fatal flaw. Its main character does not seem entirely true to life. She seems to be least nineteen (erhaps the author knows some truly precocious teenagers?). For example, here is how Theresa sees the notion of "family": As she talks to Daisy, who occasionally gets homesick for her nuclear family, Theresa tells her "You sort of wish you could be two places at once. With them, because you love them and you're used to them, but also away from them, so you can be just yourself. 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." Do most fifteen-year-olds realize this?

But Theresa's developing relationship with Flora's father, a famous painter and an emotionally chilly man, is more baffling. The man is old enough to be her grandfather, is often drunk, and is generally indifferent to, even neglectful of, his young daughter. His wife has left him, and for this, Theresa feels sympathy and a growing respect for his work. However, the book's credibility is stretched beyond reason at certain moments.

I love the book and yet I don't fully believe it. Although I would prefer to recommend it unequivocally, because of its lovely language and its languorous pace, I can't. Perhaps if one read only about half of the book and imagined its ending, one would completely love the story as this reader did for so many of its pages.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book

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