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
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
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.