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In Alice McDermott's first work of fiction since her best-selling, National Book Award-winning Charming Billy, a woman recalls her fifteenth summer with the wry and bittersweet wisdom of hindsight.
The beautiful child of older parents, raised on the eastern end of Long Island, Theresa is her town's most sought-after babysitter—cheerful, poised, an effortless storyteller, a wonder with children and animals. Among her charges this fateful summer is Daisy, her younger cousin, who ...
In Alice McDermott's first work of fiction since her best-selling, National Book Award-winning Charming Billy, a woman recalls her fifteenth summer with the wry and bittersweet wisdom of hindsight.
The beautiful child of older parents, raised on the eastern end of Long Island, Theresa is her town's most sought-after babysitter—cheerful, poised, an effortless storyteller, a wonder with children and animals. Among her charges this fateful summer is Daisy, her younger cousin, who has come to spend a few quiet weeks in this bucolic place. While Theresa copes with the challenge presented by the neighborhood's waiflike children, the tumultuous households of her employers, the attentions of an aging painter, and Daisy's fragility of body and spirit, her precocious, tongue-in-check sense of order is tested as she makes the perilous crossing into adulthood. In her deeply etched rendering of all that happened that seemingly idyllic season, McDermott once again peers into the depths of everyday life with inimitable insight and grace.
At first, this appears to be McDermott's simplest book. The core of the story plays out over the course of just a few days, for one thing, and the events are relayed in neat, nearly chronological order, for another. And yet so much happens to so many hearts, so much is revealed and then forsaken, and so much is finally placed at stake that this may well be McDermott's finest achievement. The novel's protagonist and narrator is a blue-eyed, black-haired beauty named Theresa—the only child of older, undereducated parents whose move to Long Island years before was precipitated by their desire to place their daughter in close proximity to wealth and status. By the time Theresa is ten, Theresa's mother is encouraging her to answer all thehelpmate ads. By the following summer, she is the most sought-after caretaker on the eastern tip of Long Island—loved by little girls and boys, by dogs and cats and rabbits.
When the book opens, Theresa is fifteen. Her eight-year-old cousin, whom she dubs Daisy Mae, has come to Long Island for an extended visit, and together the two administer to a growing entourage of animals and neighbors, not to mention the toddler daughter of an inscrutable and possibly famous local artist. They move from house to house, taking dogs out for walks, rescuing a dirty baby from her brothers' abandonment, saving the toddler Flora from the inconceivable neglect of her recently departed mother and her old (but still sexy) painter-father.
Theresa, of course, is the one in charge, but Daisy Mae, the shy and seemingly tentative child of an overcrowded household, soon reveals her own enormous capacity for improving the lives of others. They are a stunning duo, Theresa and Daisy Mae, and McDermott spins their story with aplomb, revealing them to the reader as they reveal themselves to each other. Theresa is never anything short of loving or imaginative. Daisy Mae is nothing less than the perfect recipient for Theresa's love. They grow sweetly conspiratorial in the stories they tell, in the games they make up, in the kindness they dollop onto others. They grow closer than most sisters ever do.
But there is something dark beneath this surface. There is something neither girl is saying. There is, for example, the unwanted, perhaps even dangerous, attention shown to them by lonely men. There is the chaos of the neighbors next door, so many filthy children, so much parental neglect. But most of all, Daisy Mae is not well, and this is no temporary sickness. There are bruises on her feet, on her back, on her arms. There is a fever in her skin. She is pale and anemic and she tires easily, and none of the adults are paying much attention. Theresa knows that it is up to her to tell the truth about her cousin's blooming bruises. Yet she is wise enough to recognize that if she tells an adult what she has seen, she will rob her cousin of the summer.
So Theresa finds a way to feed Daisy Mae St. Joseph's aspirins instead. She gets more liver and spinach into her cousin's diet. She takes her to the beach and begins what she calls a "peculiar therapy," hoping it will cure the bright blue feet: "I had Daisy stand at the shoreline," Theresa says, "where the waves could swirl around her feet, but not so far in that they could upset her balance. I told her to stand in one place while the water rushed around her ankles and her feet sank into the sand, and then, when the wave went out again, to pull her feet out, move a bit to the left or the right, and then let them sink in again." The love Theresa has for Daisy Mae is huge and overwhelming, but it is the way that Daisy Mae reciprocates that is most touching of all. Love this big can never survive, and McDermott is keen to that. What she gives us here is the dream and its denial, a novel that hurts as much as it heals, and that has all the weight and beauty of a classic.
It is all too beautiful, especially because McDermott, writing with her famous subtlety and style, makes us understand that the girls' innocence might be coming to its end. Child of My Heart is a book of astonishing craft and enormous heart. Line after line evokes and pricks. Truth after truth gets spoken. —Beth Kephart
Excerpt from Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2002 by Alice McDermott. To be published in December, 2002 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits, three of them, that had been left under our back steps. They were wet and blind, curled up like grubs and wrapped in a kind of gray caul--so small it was difficult to know if their bodies moved with the beating of their hearts or the rise of their breaths. Not meant to live, as my parents had told me, being wild things, although I tried for nearly a week to feed them a watery mixture of milk and torn clover. But that was late August.Late in June, Daisy arrived, the middle child of my father's only sister. She came out by herself on the Long Island Railroad, her name and address written on a piece of torn brown paper and attached to her dress with a safety pin. In my bedroom, which she was to share, I opened her suitcase, and a dozen slick packages slid out--tennis sets and pedal-pusher sets, Bermuda shorts and baby doll pajamas and underwear, all brand-new and still wrapped in cellophane. There was a brand-new pair of sneakers as well, the cheap, pulled-from-a-bin kind, bound together with the same plastic thread that held their price tag, and another, even cheaper pair of brittle pale pink slip-ons studded with blue and turquoise jewels. Princess shoes. Daisy was vain about them, I could tell. She asked me immediately-she was the shy child of strict parents so most of what she said involved asking forpermission--if she could take off the worn saddle shoes she had traveled in and put them on. "I won't wear them outside till Sunday," she promised. She had the pale blue, nearly translucent skin of true redheads, a plain wisp of a child under the thick hair and the large head. It made no difference to me what kind of shoes she wore, and I told her so. I was pretty sure they were meant to be bedroom slippers anyway. "Why wait for Sunday?" I said.Kneeling among the packages that made up her wardrobe, I asked, "Didn't you bring any old clothes, Daisy Mae?" She said her mother had told her that whatever else she needed to wear she could borrow from me. I was fifteen that summer and already as tall as my father, but my entire life's wardrobe was stored in the attic, so I knew what she meant. Daisy herself had six brothers and a sister, and even at fifteen I knew that my aunt and uncle resented what they saw as the lavish time and money my parents spent on me, an only child. 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.Just the winter before I had spent a weekend with them in their tidy house in Queens Village. I had come up from East Hampton precisely to take poor Daisy (to us, she was always "poor Daisy") into Manhattan to see the Christmas show at Radio City. My Aunt Peg, my father's sister, picked me up at the Jamaica station and immediately dropped the hint that it was impolite and unfair of me not to have invited Bernadette, her twelve-year-old, to come along, too. Aunt Peg was a thin and wiry woman, only, it seemed, a good night's sleep away from being pretty. Under her freckles, her dry skin was pale, and her thick, brittle hair was a weary, sun-faded shade of auburn. Even as she drove, she had a way of constantly leaning forward, as if into a wind, which of course added to her air of determined efficiency. (I could well imagine her pushing a shopping cart through the Great Eastern Mills in Elmont, pulling shorts sets and tennis sets from the crowded bins--one, two, three, four, underwear, pajamas, shoes--dumping all of them directly from shopping bag to suitcase, toss in a hairbrush and a toothbrush, slam the case, done.) "Bernadette will have to find her own fun tomorrow" was the way she put it to me, leaning into the steering wheel as if we were all headed downhill.Their house was at the bottom of a dead-end street: narrow, painted brick, with a long driveway and a shingled garage and a square little back yard big enough for only an umbrella clothesline and a long-disused sandbox. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, and then up another flight of stairs, hidden behind a door, a finished attic that served as a kind of dormitory for the three older boys. There was the odor of children about the place-endemic to any house I have ever visited with more than three kids living in it-a distillation of the domestic scents of milk and wet socks combined with the paper and paste and industrial-strength disinfectant of elementary-school hallways. Despite the number of people living in the small house, there was a remarkable sense of order about the rooms, most especially in my aunt and uncle's bedroom, which was at the head of the stairs. It was a small, square room with one large window that looked out into the street. It held a high four-poster bed, a tall dresser (his) and a low bureau (hers) with a mirror, two night tables, and a straight-backed chair with a tapestry seat. The curtains that crisscrossed the window were white lace. There was a crucifix above the bed, a large oil painting of the Sacred Heart on the far wall--the first thing you saw when you looked into the room from the hallway--a mostly blood-red Oriental carpet on the floor. There was only one photograph in the room: my aunt and uncle's wedding picture. No sign, in other words, of the eight children that had been conceived on the double mattress, under the eternally smooth bedspread. Explanation enough, it seemed to me, for the apparent forgetfulness on their part that had yielded all those unexpected pregnancies. With the bedroom door pulled closed, they couldn't have found it difficult to make themselves believe that they were perfectly free to begin again.Uncle Jack was a transit cop. He had a pitted, handsome face, dark eyes, thin lips, and a thousand and one inscrutable but insurmountable rules regarding his home and his children. No one, for instance, was to walk on the front lawn. Or sit on the bumper of his car when it was parked in the driveway. No one was to call out from an upstairs window when someone was at the front door. No one was to play handball against the garage, or stoop ball against the stoop. There was no going barefoot around the house. No getting up from the dinner table without a precise answer to the precise question "May I please be excused?" No sitting on the curb or standing under the streetlight. No dishes left in the dish drainer. No phone calls from friends after 6 p.m. No playing down in the basement after eight. No sleeping on the couch--day or night, in sickness or in health--which put me in the smallest of the three bedrooms with Daisy and Bernadette, Daisy on the rickety army cot because I was the guest and because Bernadette was not going to have the wonderful day in the city that Daisy was getting the next morning, so she might as well, said Aunt Peg, at least have a good night's sleep.I didn't much care for Bernadette-she was plain and chubby, but, more to the point, she was also extremely smart, which made her mean. It was as if she had already weighed the value of her intelligence against the value the world would assign it and knew instinctively that she would be gypped. Although I always attempted to feel sorry for her, I was more successful at feeling a smug satisfaction as I placed my overnight bag on Daisy's bed and realized that all of Bernadette's Honor Roll certificates plastering the walls could not earn her my affection, or my company. Because whatever sympathy her forlorn expression might have elicited as she watched me from her frilly, dancing-ballerinas bedspread (a bedspread meant for another kind of child altogether) was dissipated by her questions about how I tolerated living "way out at the end of Long Island" after all the interesting summer people had gone.She refused to come along on a walk. It was too cold for walking, she said. There was nothing worth walking to, anyway, not around here-as if she alone had some experience of a better place, a place filled with worthy destinations. I understood even then that this cool disdain of hers was the last refuge of the homely (generosity and sweetness--which was what she saved for adult company--being the next to last), and was glad enough to leave her to it. There is no misanthrope like a chubby misanthrope. Daisy and I were free, then, to slip through the slight jog of space between the tall hurricane fence that ran along my cousins' property and the chain-link that ran along their neighbors', into an alleyway that no doubt had some part in Uncle Jack's listed prohibitions. It ran behind the series of dead ends that made up the neighborhood, and was broken here and there by even smaller paths that led between other narrow yards and other houses and out into other streets. We followed these smaller passageways randomly, emerging from between fenced winter gardens and storage sheds, or battered garbage cans and tangles of abandoned bicycles, onto streets neither one of us had ever seen before. I was, of course, within half an hour, totally lost, but Daisy held my hand with complete confidence, marveling, I could tell, at just how I knew where to turn.When we came out onto a broad boulevard divided by a series of lacy, winter-bare willows, I heard her catch her breath. All the little houses here had front sunrooms, and by some wonderful neighborhood consensus every windowpane of every one of them had been decorated with a sprayed-on parabola of snow. "We're in Bavaria," I said, and Daisy whispered, "We are?" as if this were a surprise, and a destination, I had planned for her. And then real snow began to fall. If you had seen the way she glanced up at the sky, you'd have thought I'd planned this, too. It accumulated first on the grass, and then, more rapidly, on the street and sidewalk. Our footprints were the first to mark it. We walked down the narrow divide, under the thin willow branches as they gathered snow, unable to tell if it was the yellow sky that was darkening above us or only the thickening canopy of coated trees. We threw back our heads and opened our mouths and stuck out our tongues and felt the snowflakes in our eyes and on our bare throats. When other children started to come out of the houses behind us, shouting, optimistically scraping sleds over sidewalks, we ran to get away from them, up to Jamaica Avenue, where the streetlights were already on. It was that odd light of early winter, afternoon turning prematurely to steel-blue night. We went into a candy store on a corner, its entrance already slick with wet footprints and its smell of newsprint and candy bars and the cold overcoats of men just up from the subway making us feel we had indeed traveled a long way.fs20At the counter, I bought us each a hot chocolate with the extra money I always put in my shoe when I took the Long Island Railroad. It was lovely stuff, made with hot water, not milk, and topped with whipped cream from a cold silver can. It was served in chipped and yellowing cups and saucers that smelled faintly of coffee--the warm rims of the cups delightfully dry and thick against our lips. Drinking it, we pretended to speak French-tossing the word chocolat back and forth between us--and hugging the cups like Europeans, our elbows on the counter. (Cup-hugging and elbows on the table being, of course, Daisy said, two more of her father's taboos.) After I paid, I asked for directions home from the man at the register, pretending I was only out to confirm what I already knew, although I'm not sure Daisy would have noticed anyway. There was a barrel of lollipops beside the newspaper rack, a handwritten sign, TWO FOR A NICKEL. Her parents had made her too polite to ask for one, so I casually bought a hundred of them, refusing a paper bag and stuffing them instead into our pockets, pant pockets and coat pockets, and then lifting the hem of her sweater to form another pocket and filling it as well.When we got back to the house, we dumped all of them over her brothers and Bernadette, who were lying on the living-room floor watching their allotted hour of television before dinner. The lollipops in their wrappers were wet with snow, some were muddy from where we had dropped them on the walk home. "Where did you get these?" Bernadette asked, and before Daisy could answer, I said, "We found a lollipop tree. You should have come." The boys said, "Yeah, sure," but Bernadette couldn't resist grilling us on the particulars, her eyes narrowed, her thin mouth opened skeptically, showing the little blowfish teeth.A house on the boulevard, I said. A willow tree. A huge willow tree filled with lollipops for the taking. The tree belongs to an old couple, I said, whose only child, a little boy, had dreamed of a lollipop tree in his front yard on the night he died, fifty years ago this very day. Once a year and only on this day, I said, they make his dream come true by filling their willow tree with lollipops. (And the odd thing is, I said, it was snowing in his dream, too, and it snows every year on this date the minute the old couple hangs the last lollipop on the tree.) They invite children from miles around. I'm surprised you guys have never heard about it before. The old couple serves hot chocolate out on their lawn while the children collect the lollipops from the tree. They hire tall men to help lift the smaller children high into the branches. The single rule is that you can pick only as many lollipops as you can carry home--no paper bags or suitcases, oh, and that the picking lasts for just one hour, from dusk to nightfall, to the second the first star appears. Corresponding to their son's last hour on earth, since the evening star in the dark blue winter sky was the first thing the old couple had noticed when they went to the bedroom window only a minute after the doctor had pulled a blanket up over his peaceful little face.Although Bernadette squinted skeptically through it all, the boys had their backs to the TV set by the time I'd finished. "We'll have to go next year," Jack Jr. said softly. But Bernadette turned on Daisy. "Is this true?" she demanded. Daisy shrugged her thin shoulders. There was a remnant of hot chocolate on her upper lip and the top of her wiry hair was darkened by a little skullcap of melted snow. "You should have come," she said matter-of-factly, skirting the lie. Child of my heart.
“I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits, three of them, that had been left under our back steps” (p. 3). So begins Alice McDermott’s bittersweet tale of one telling summer, when Theresa, a swanlike fifteen-year-old beauty, faces sadness and surprise as she leaves her fantasylike childhood behind and enters the shocking realm of maturity.
Theresa is the most sought-after baby-sitter and dog-walker in all of East Hampton, where her working-class Irish Catholic parents moved to expose her to wealthy potential husbands. Uncannily adored by children and animals alike, Theresa spends each summer day, with Daisy in tow, splendidly enchanting her bedraggled neighbors, the Moran kids; Flora, the angelic toddler of the local artist; Red Rover, Dr. Kaufman’s half-witted golden retriever; and Rupert and Angus, Mr. and Mrs. Richardson’s prim Scottish pups. Theresa creates a dreamlike haven for the children and pets where lollipops grow on trees, friendly ghosts visit in the night, and magical pink shoes banish bruises from poor Daisy’s feet.
Theresa’s own dream sequence is interrupted, though, as she discovers her sexual desires, the impending death of her favorite cousin, and the neglected longings for love of the deprived children for whom she cares.
Posted July 26, 2009
I Also Recommend:
It is the gentle telling of a Long Island summer in the '60s by a fifteen year old girl. She is a careful observer. The book is a little like watching grass grow, but lovely grass. Theresa's interactions with the children she babysits, the animals and the adults in her world, especially the older men as they tentatively approach this beautiful girl, unfold with love. Her love and caring for her 8 year cousin who is dying is poignant. It is the kind of book teenage girls could like and, hopefully, learn from. Great summer reading or listening.
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Posted September 6, 2003
Posted February 18, 2009
Posted March 16, 2008
Child of My Heart is beautifully written. The prose is absolutely lyrical, and there are some moments of the book that are both charming and haunting. Now that that's been said, I have to mention it's flaws. Let's start with the main character. Theresa is extremely beautiful, extremely good, extremely clever, and extremely endearing to all around her whether child, adult or animal. And she has no problem explaining this - she's the novel's narrator. It can be extremely grating on the reader's nerves. It was on mine. I found our girl both self-absorbed and on the shallow side. Not to mention a very unrealistic teenager. It grows more unbelievable from there. In fact, there's at least one hard- to- accept plot twist which is genuinely, deeply disturbing. Pick up the book at your own risk. You've been warned.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 13, 2005
I will recommend Child of My Heart to my 14-year-old daughter for a number of reasons: for it's sympathetically-drawn characters; for its meditation on the nature of caring; for its insight into the sometimes not common-sensical inner life of emotional transition; and maybe most of all, for its rich yet spare use of language to create these characters and setting. These same qualities attracted me¿a middle-aged guy. Yes, the protagonist, 15-year-old Theresa, and her 8-year-old cousin, Daisy¿both complement and foil to Theresa¿sometimes reveal wisdom beyond their years (a la Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird). This device moves the novel beyond pure photorealism, although the many characters of the small community of the book are mostly sympathetically fleshed out, to incorporate some aspects of fable. Interweaving the archetypal into the personal, as Ms. McDermott has done so well and almost imperceptibly here, serves only to offer the reader an added layer of meaning to consider.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2005
I found the character of Theresa (the 15 yr. old beautiful, self-confident, totally capable, teller of the tale, to be very flawed. She is self-absorbed with her charms, and untrusting and disparaging of adults not in a way which is typical for teen-agers. The development of the young girl Flora is completely unreal. She is still in a crib, but sometimes says things that are way too adult for her. The story dragged and I pushed on with it just to see why it was so highly rated. Would not recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 24, 2004
This novel is beautifully written, but many of the characters are too unbelievable. The main character is lauded for her beauty, rather than her sensitivity. The story does not reach a place where her inside beauty and naivete are satisfyingly portrayed (either positively or negatively). For this reason I would not recommend this book...especially not to teenage girls who receive too much unreal influences about beauty.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 5, 2003
Alice McDermott's achingly beautiful story of a summer will lure you in and never let go. There are passages and images so remarkably written that they take your breath away. I was as enchanted by Theresa as her little charges in the Hamptons. I was reluctant to leave the vividly etched and beautifully evoked world of Theresa and Daisy Mae. These characters will live on in my memory always.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 23, 2003
The magical world 15 year old Theresa creates for cousin Daisy Mae and for us keeps us wanting more, just like the parade of scruffy creatures, human and animal, that follow Theresa seeking salvation and healing. She provides that but her goodness transcends all reality; she is much too aware, too clever for the dim adults and adoring children she leads around. Is she a goddess, fairy godmother or Pied Piper? A marvelous read, nevertheless.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 12, 2003
I wish I never read this book. When I picked up the book and read the first 30 or so pages it seemed like a sweet and touching coming of age story. In the end I found the main character really foolish and unbelievable. To imagine a 15 year old being sexually attracted to a 70 year old married man, is ridiculous. And her stupidity about not telling someone about her cousin's condition even when a doctor told her to. This was not the excellent, caring, and intelligent baby and petsitter that I knew early in the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 5, 2003
As a psychologist I did not believe in the character of Theresa for a minute. She is portryed as this all knowing, all caring beautiful 15 year old. Where are her friends? where are her age appropriate desire to be with peers? I did not believe a girl that age could be attracted to a 70 year old alcoholic man. And folks 15 year old girl and 70 year old man is known as statutory rape. why does this nuturing girl not tell an adult when she sees her cousin has a medical condition and when a doctor even alerts her. I would call that selfish, not caring. There are some nice portraits in here. The neighbor, Petey, is really more like a real kid. I hate novels which don't really get that kid thing right but only idealize them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2009
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