In 1998, Alice McDermott's fourth novel, Charming Billy, surprised
the literary world by capturing the National Book Award. Few doubted that
McDermott deserved the prize and the readership it would deliver
she'd also been nominated for two Pulitzers and another NBA but
A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe's 727-page tome, was generally presumed
to be a shoo-in for the prize. In some respects, beating out Wolfe offered
an incisive clue about her success. Book after book, McDermott does more
with less. In her novels it's often what isn't on the page that tells
you what you need to know about the characters and their stories. Since
her debut, A Bigamist's Daughter, reviewers have been calling McDermott's
fiction "prismatic." And it's true: the force of her writing
rarely hits you directly, but rather through the accumulation of precise,
stunning details delivered in immaculately crafted phrasings. Then she
gave us Child of My Heart, a deceptively simple story about one
fifteen-year-old girl's summer on the east end of Long Island. "McDermott
is something of a specialist in the literature of wry sorrow she's
Irish, after all," Ron Charles noted in the Christian Science
Monitor. "Her previous novel, Charming Billy, described
a lovable alcoholic who could never marry the woman he loved. She's not
far from that theme in Child of My Heart, but this time she's wound
sorrow tightly around a spine of resilience to produce a story that's
more profound and unsettling." Dave, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
A young girl's astonishing, poignant first look into the turbulent heart of things
"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.... "
Alice McDermott's haunting and enchanting new work of fiction--her first since the bestselling Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award--is narrated by a woman who was born beautiful. Her parents decided that her best chance in life was to marry a wealthy man, so she was raised on the east end of Long Island, among the country houses of the rich. On the cusp of fifteen, she is the town's most sought-after babysitter--cheerful, beloved, a wonder with children and animals, but also a solitary soul with an already complex understanding of human nature--when her favorite cousin, Daisy, comes to spend the summer.
The narrator's witty, piquant, deeply etched evocation of all that was really transpiring under the surface during that seemingly idyllic season gives her wry tale--infused with suppressed passion, disappointment, and enduring hope--its remarkable vividness and impact. Once again, Alice McDermott explores the mysterious depths of what seems like everyday life with unforgettable insight and resonant emotional power.
"This is another charmer from McDermott; it's evocative, gently funny and resonant with a sense of impending loss, as all stories of youthful summers must be. There's a whisper of maudlin sentimentality throughout, but Theresa is so likable, and her observations so acute, that one easily forgives it." Publishers Weekly
"Just as the calm and sparkling sea can conceal a tricky undertow, McDermott's gorgeous novel is laced with sly literary allusions and provocative insights into the enigma of sexual desire, the mutability of art, death's haunting presence, our need for fantasies, and the endless struggle to keep love pure." Donna Seaman, Booklist
"McDermott's prose is even and elegant, and the complex character of Theresa offers subtle emotion imbued with haunting prescience." Library Journal
"Though hobbled by a tendency toward sentimentality and self-consciousness, McDermott sculpts her small story with a meticulous eye for the telling detail and transcendent metaphor. We know what's coming, but so do the characters that's part of this tale's bittersweet power." Kirkus Reviews
"McDermott's presentation of a child's growing awareness of the adult world has something classic about it....In reading this almost immaculate novel, I couldn't help seeing McDermott as if she herself were Theresa, watching some boys play king of the hill. And smiling to herself, knowing that the art of restraint is more difficult to practice, and its results more likely to last." Michael Gorra, New York Times Book Review
"McDermott is a subtle writer, and so while some novelists might fabricate this welter of teenage emotion out of a consummated affair, McDermott does the opposite....We fear for Theresa, and for girls like her a fear that doesnt fully dissipate at the conclusion of McDermott's wise, brilliantly observed novel." John Freeman, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"This may well be McDermott's finest achievement
Child of My Heart is a book of astonishing craft and enormous heart. Line by line evokes and pricks. Truth after truth gets spoken." Beth Kephart, Book magazine
"This specific, full world, along with McDermott's stringent modesty and moral rigor, allows her to ponder deep contemporary and eternal questions (in her hands they seem to be the same ones) without fuss or bombast....McDermott displays a vibrant romantic hope exactly matched by a realist's awareness of daily devastation." Mona Simpson, Atlantic Monthly
(read the entire Atlantic review
McDermott's haunting new work--her first since the bestselling "Charming Billy, " winner of the 1998 National Book Award--is narrated by a woman who was born beautiful. On the cusp of 15, her witty, deeply etched evocation of all that was really transpiring under the surface during a seemingly idyllic season gives her wry tale its remarkable vividness and impact.
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.
About the Author
won the National Book Award in 1998 for Charming Billy.
She is the author of four other novels: At Weddings and Wakes
, a New York Times
bestseller, That Night
; and A Bigamist's Daughter
. She lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.
Sheryl Bernstein is an accomplished voice-over actress. Shes lent her voice to productions such as Spider-Man 3, Ultimate Spider-Man, Toy Story 2, and Aladdin. Her audiobook credits included narrating for authors such as Alice McDermott, Susan Vreeland, and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. In describing Sheryls work on Child of My Heart, published by Macmillan Audio, AudioFile magazine has stated, “Sheryl Bernstein captures this quality perfectly, but even more astounding is how, by lightening her voice, she portrays the novel's children, rendering them tenderly but not sugary.”
Reading Group Guide
1. How old is Theresa as she narrates her memoir? In what time period is the novel set? How were you able to figure this out?
2. Discuss McDermotts writing style. Why doesnt she separate the novel into chapters? Would you describe her language as poetic? Is it easy to understand?
3. Theresa describes herself as “pretty, intelligent, mature in speech although undeveloped physically (another plus), well immersed in my parents old-fashioned Irish Catholic manners (inherited from their parents, who had spent their careers in service to this very breed of American rich), and, best of all, beloved by children and pets” (p. 14). Describe Theresas other characteristics. How does her personality develop throughout the novel?
4. “He might well have been a genius, a famous artist, a man whose signature and doodles were valuable, but I was fifteen and pretty and I didnt doubt for a moment that I was the one with the advantage here” (p. 22). How does Theresa use her good looks to manipulate people? Does she do it intentionally?
5. Theresa acknowledges that her parents are “wary . . . of what they must have believed was the fast-approaching time of my fulfillment of their dream for me—of my absorption into that world they had taken so much trouble to place me on the threshold of” (p. 33). Describe Theresas parents. Do you find them superficial or genuine? Are they good parents? How do they compare to the other parents in the novel? What does Theresa think of her parents?
6. How does Theresas childhood compare to Daisys, the Morans, the Kaufmans, and Floras?
7. “I would have thought the housekeeper was too old to be included in such talk, just as, a few minutes ago, I might have presumed I was too young and Floras mother too elegant to speak such a word” (pp. 64-65). What does Theresa think of adults? Does she consider herself one? Would you describe this book as a coming-of-age novel?
8. The name Theresa is prevalent in Catholic religious history. Do you think McDermott is making a reference to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a beautiful child of doting parents who entered the convent with special permission from the Vatican at age fifteen; or to Saint Teresa of Ávila, who partially recovered from a serious illness through the intercession of Saint Joseph; or to Mother Teresa, renowned caregiver of the sick and dying? McDermott references another saint as well—Saint Joseph, chaste husband of the Virgin Mary. Is McDermott referring to the artist with irony?
9. Does Theresa consider herself better than Ana and the cook even though they are all employees of the house?
10. “It was this watching that disturbed me, because in it I saw his belief that he could penetrate with his amused eyes the person I thought I was and find something more to his liking at the core” (p. 170). Theresa is acknowledging that the artist makes her feel as if she is no longer merely a pretty child, but a sexual being and a woman. Is Theresa afraid of growing up? Is she nervous about the sexual urgings developing between her and the artist? What does the artist find at her “core”?
11. Do you find the love scene between the artist and Theresa disturbing?
12. Bill, the young writer who visits Floras father, asks Theresa, “Are you too young to know whats going on here? I mean, what the arrangement is” (p. 187). Is she too young? What is the arrangement?
13. McDermott draws a number of secondary characters into the story. Why are Petey, Bernadette, Dr. Kaufman, Mrs. Richardson, and all of the others so important? Do you relate to any one character the best?
14. How important is location to the novel? Are you able to visualize East Hampton? Can you imagine this novel set in any other location?
15. Why does Theresa keep Daisys ailing health a secret? How does this make you feel?
16. “I wanted them scribbled over, torn up. Start over again. Draw a world where it simply doesnt 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 death of children” (p. 180). Describe the emotions in this statement. Why does Theresa incorporate so much magic and fantasy into her life and the lives of the suffering children who surround her?
17. What is Theresas vision of love?
18. Children are at the forefront of this novel. Why are McDermotts juvenile characters so captivating? Does she depict childhood realistically?
19. At the close of the novel, weve lost the two central characters—Daisy to death, and Theresa to adulthood. How do these two forms of loss differ?