Child of My Heart (2002) is the most sensual of the five McDermott books I have read in the past few months for the Reading the Author Challenge as well as a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story. That doesn’t make it disappointing, or in any way, ordinary. The story captures well those illusory moments of enchanting limbo between childhood and adulthood.
Our narrator is Teresa – the daughter of middle class working parents, thrown into the high society world of wealthy Long Island as a child minder and pet sitter. The story is set during her fifteenth summer, a summer she spends looking after the young daughter of an older painter along with her own eight year old cousin. One of the trademarks of Teresa’s character is a nearly magical expertise with both children and animals. She is also beautiful. And conscious of both these qualities. The awareness of her gifts comes wrapped in the unshakeable confidence of a young girl eagerly looking to take her first steps in an adult world.
The heart of the story centers on Teresa’s relationship with the artist father of her youngest charge, Flora, and the mysterious bruises that she discovers blooming across the body of her cousin, Daisy. In response to these two situations, Teresa’s behavior is sometimes surprising and her decisions curious. And as necessary for most coming-of-age stories, McDermott has not created an ordinary teenager but an overly mature one, an old soul. Something that at times does push the boundaries of verisimilitude. Yet, Teresa contains a healthy dose of everygirl and everywoman. And it is this mix of her exceptional qualities with her typical side that make her a character worth getting to know.
One of the more poignant elements of the story is Daisy’s self-conscious decline. She is a sick little girl and gradually wakening to that possibility despite Teresa’s machinations to fairytale her into perfect happiness. This feature of the novel perfectly mirrors Teresa’s ambivalence about her movement away from childhood and its games.
I wanted them banished, the stories, the songs, the foolish tales of children’s tragic premonitions. I wanted them scribbled over, torn up. Start over again. Draw a world where it simply doesn’t happen, a world of only color, no form. Out of my head and more to my liking: a kingdom by the sea, eternal summer, a brush of fairy wings and all dark things banished, age, cruelty, pain, poor dogs, dead cats, harried parents, lonely children, all the coming griefs, all the sentimental, maudlin tales fashioned out of the deaths of children.
McDermott really is a master of finding the smaller moments, the minutiae of life, and mining their more complicated emotions. Child of My Heart spans only a few short weeks in Teresa’s life but it unearths what those weeks are to become to her entire life.