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Swift as a shadow, short as any dream

Child of My Heart, A Novel, Alice McDermott, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 242 pp., $23

November 24, 2002|David Ebershoff | David Ebershoff is the author of "Pasadena," "The Danish Girl" and "The Rose City."

One winter afternoon in Queens, circa 1960, Theresa, the 15-year-old narrator of Alice McDermott's wondrous new novel, takes her little cousin Daisy to a candy store. They buy 100 lollipops and bring them home to Daisy's siblings, six brothers and a skeptical sister, who asks, as any child would, "Where'd you get these?" Before Daisy can answer, Theresa is inventing a sugary but morbid fantasy about an old couple whose only child, 50 years ago to the day, dreamed of a lollipop tree in his frontyard at dusk, and then suddenly died. Each year on the anniversary of his death, in the brief February hour between daylight and dark, the couple hang lollipops on their front willow for the neighborhood children.

By the time Theresa finishes telling the story, with the 100 lollipops as her evidence, the six boys have turned their backs to the television set, so entranced are they. But Bernadette, the cynic, demands of Daisy to know whether this is true. Daisy -- tiny, shy and only 8 -- neither confirms nor denies the tale. She shrugs her shoulders and says, "You should have come." Theresa, herself in the twilight hour between childhood and the world of adults, is pleased: "Child of my heart," she thinks.

Like William Trevor, Alice McDermott is a genius of quiet observation. Her antenna is perpetually raised and turning, humming and warm with reception. Her novels possess a satisfying sameness, in the same way that Jane Austen's novels share certain similarities in content and tone but are uniquely enchanting. Readers of "Charming Billy," her 1998 novel that won the National Book Award, will recognize the setting of "Child of My Heart" on the eastern end of Long Island and its elegiac, end-of-summer tone.

Theresa is the only child of middle-class Irish Catholic parents who moved to a fisherman's cottage in tony East Hampton when she was a toddler because, as Theresa explains, "[t]hey knew rich people lived way out on Long Island, even if only for the summer months, and putting me in a place where I might be spotted by some of them was their equivalent of offering me every opportunity." By the time she's a young teenager, many people in East Hampton have indeed noticed her, both for her beauty ("a young Elizabeth Taylor") and for her uncanny ability to win the hearts of children and small animals alike. She spends her summers baby-sitting, cat-sitting and dog-walking for her fecklessly rich neighbors and peers with perfect vision into their expensive but immature lives.

Theresa is what she would call a "wise soul." Like her patron saint, she has a rare and spiritual understanding of the spectrum of human souls. She describes people in swift and accurate swipes, summing them up unequivocally. Daisy's mother is "a thin and wiry woman, only, it seemed, a good night's sleep away from being pretty." The very young wife of a famous septuagenarian painter, is "thin and tall, with something severe about her face ... a certain gray roughness to her otherwise flawless skin that would put you in mind of expertly poured concrete." When she speaks for the first time with the painter himself, an artist whose infant daughter Theresa babysits, she intuits their fundamental differences. " 'I hear you're a babysitter par excellence,' he said -- not the way I would say it, but the way someone who really spoke French would say it. I told him I just liked children. He nodded slowly, as if this were a sad but complex piece of information."

The novel spans the few summer weeks when Daisy leaves her home in Queens -- a household of 10 living on a transit cop's salary -- to visit Theresa in East Hampton. "Poor Daisy," her family collectively refers to her. They only think about her in terms of her physical frailty: "Her ears stood out like the handles on a teacup. Her skin, the bones of her bare shoulders seemed teacup thin, pale blue and fragile." There is something fairy-like about Daisy -- all quiet bone and wild red hair -- that makes her family feel as if there's little they can do to save her from the world. Only Theresa has paid her any attention in her short life, and hence the almost magical event of her visit to her cousin's in East Hampton.

Immediately, Daisy becomes Theresa's sidekick as she makes her rounds walking the dogs and minding the children of people too busy, or lazy, to do it themselves. Their first day together is a long, masterful arc that runs about 70 pages; everything about it, in McDermott's skilled hand, possesses the joyous, free-spirited, soul-exhausting quality of a child's summer day: "There was the lovely scent of fading summer afternoon in the air -- maybe a hint of the unseen children's suntan lotion." Yet, as every child knows, melancholy, or worse, can shadow even the most perfect day.

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