The follow-up to an award-winning performance is often a disappointment. Many talented writers nab a Pulitzer or other honor and then find the only way to go is down. That’s the case with Child of My Heart, which follows Bethesda resident Alice McDermott’s 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy. But a step down from a pinnacle isn’t rock bottom, and Child of My Heart is still engaging and well written.
The story of complicated, amusing characters on vacation in the Hamptons is seen through the eyes of year-round resident Theresa, a wise and perceptive 15-year-old beauty. Theresa hosts her mysteriously ill cousin, Daisy, while babysitting for wealthy, self-absorbed couples summering there. As she observes infidelity, pedophilic inklings, and dissatisfaction around her, the question is whether she wants that life for herself—the hope of her middle-class parents.
The difference between McDermott’s heroine—as viewed by Theresa’s adult self—and the typical angst-ridden and sometimes pathetic teens of other novels is that she’s strikingly real, her thoughts free of bitterness and disillusionment:
"I glanced at the three sketches in their gold frames and considered what their worth might be, when they had been claimed by the future and all that was pretty and charming about them was transformed by all that had intervened—the infant grown into a troubled woman, the mother never returned, the father and all his efforts turned to dust. But then, I supposed, with more time, all that would be forgotten as well, and they would once again be charming and pretty portraits of a mother and child."
Just as the children in Theresa’s care are taken by her stories and descriptions, the reader is charmed by the remaining shreds of her carefree innocence. McDermott crafts a seductive atmosphere of beach breezes, kite flying, sunshine, blue skies, and the smell of freshly cut grass. Child of My Heart isn’t likely to land on a college syllabus or be the subject of literary scholarship. It’s something to read when you’re at the beach or just wishing you were.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux