Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott (2002)

What I loved about Charming Billy, McDermott’s last novel (~ 1999) were the intricate details of specific scenes and characters.  After 10+ years, I can still see the funeral parlor.  Similarly, in Child of My Heart, McDermott zeros in on her main character’s every move.  The whole novel covers maybe a few weeks in the life of Theresa, a 15-year-old Long Island resident who is coveted by neighboring families for her pet-sitting and baby-sitting prowess. It seems that all children and pets are happiest under her charge.  McDermott kind of follows Theresa around with a zoom lens, allowing us to listen and watch her every move. She invites Daisy-Mae, her 8 year old waif-thin—and ill—cousin, to visit for the summer acting as a protective and guiding older sister, something Daisy-Mae has never experienced in her family of 8.  Together, they care for Flora, the toddler of an aging artist and his young—often absent—wife, several dogs and cats of wealthy Long-Islanders, and the neighboring children who are often hungry, dirty, and wanting in numerous ways.  In every situation, Theresa seems to know just what to do and say to soothe, calm, shelter, guide, persuade, and advise.  Almost too much.  She seems wise beyond her years, and cloyingly sweet,  yet precocious. She is sexually excited by the advances of Flora’s father, who is 70, yet standoff-ish at the same time.  What 15-year-old can calmly sing a two-year-old to sleep one minute and lose herself in the flutters of an old man’s touch on the back of her neck the next minute, acting as if it’s all very normal.  Clearly Theresa is no typical teenager, but in terms of character believability, I think McDermott stretches a little too far.  Still, there are multiple moments of pure beauty in her writing, in description and insight.  At one point, Theresa talks with Daisy-Mae who is missing her family, and Theresa explains that when you’re used to people, you can “miss them but not necessarily want to be with them. . . sort wishing you can “be in 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” (88).  I think I feel that way a lot.  Probably everyone does.  I suppose I’d describe this as a coming-of-age story as Theresa slides into the world of adult experience, at the same time maintaining a world of innocence for Daisy and Flora.  Her ability to navigate both worlds without ever becoming rattled or overwhelmed, however, propels her well beyond her 15 years.  Probably beyond anyone at 15.  (fiction)

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