McDermott's 'Child'-- a luminescent old soul

November 24, 2002|By Helene Stapinski | By Helene Stapinski,Special to the Sun

Child of My Heart, by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 208 pages. $23.

Alice McDermott writes beautiful sentences. She takes the most mundane or awful sights and turns them into poetry. In describing a drunken neighbor asleep on his lawn, his pants down around his ankles, she writes: "I got a quick, bone-chilling glimpse of a mound of a pale backside, as gray and lonesome as a sand dune in winter."

Like her National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, McDermott's new book is set on the east end of Long Island. It's the early '60s -- a time when the Hamptons were still pristine, not yet overrun, but home to artists and blue bloods. The story is told by 15-year-old Theresa, a stunning baby sitter whose Queens-born parents have moved to the East End to improve their only child's social standing, to expose her to a better world.

Theresa has invited Daisy, her little redheaded cousin from Queens Village, the middle of eight children, to come for a few weeks to enjoy the surf and sun. It's Theresa's job -- while keeping one eye on the wealthy children and the other on their lecherous fathers -- to show Daisy a good time.

But Daisy is one of those luminescent kids, so good and so wise -- an old soul, Theresa tells her. You worry that, like Daisy Miller, the patron saint of all pretty young things not long for this world, she won't even last the summer.

There's that tension between wanting to know what will happen to Daisy but wanting the prose -- like life itself -- to last as long as possible, to savor each phrase, each sentence, enjoy each dahlia and bit of Hamptons scenery.

Had McDermott stuck to a simple plot line, Child of My Heart would have been an extraordinarily tender, poignant novel about life, death and the growing up in between.

But as the book progresses, McDermott takes us on a detour, deeper into the world of the leisure class. Her ear for dialogue and eye for detail barely survive the trip.

McDermott's careful prose suddenly borders on caricature. Symbols and metaphors become heavy handed -- particularly repeated references to Macbeth.

A subplot involving the loss of Theresa's virginity overwhelms the story of poor Daisy, and seems forced and unbelievable, as do many of the Hamptons characters: the promiscuous French maid, the devilish journalist, the rich artist's wife who abandons her child, and the old, oversexed painter obsessed with youth, are all two-dimensional. McDermott -- and so we -- couldn't really care less about these people. They should be relegated to background noise, but instead, seem to move center stage.

McDermott, like her heroine Theresa, is an outsider looking in, whether into the lives of the rich or into the lives of those she's left behind. But it's when McDermott sticks to the souls of the people she knows best, Daisy, the children, Theresa and her family and friends, that her writing is most true, most painful and most beautiful.

"Like exiles," she writes of Theresa's parents, "their delight was not in where they now found themselves but in whatever they could remember about the place, and the time, they had abandoned."

If only McDermott listened a little more closely to her own sentences.

Helene Stapinski's memoir, Five-Finger Discount, explored her childhood and adolescence in Jersey City, N.J., and the social dynamics of graft, survival, love and wit. A journalist who has been both a reporter and a columnist, she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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