All Sugar, No Spice

There are many things to love in Alice McDermott's new novel, "Child of My Heart," and just as many that will drive you nuts. McDermott's first novel since "Charming Billy," her 1998 National Book Award winner, this book returns to her favorite territory--the Irish-American landscape of New York's Queens and Long Island. But in telling the story of a 15-year-old girl's '60's summer in the Hamptons, McDermott does a nice job of subverting expectations--starting with the fact that this may be one of the few novels about the Hamptons where the heroine isn't rich. Instead, she baby-sits and dog-walks for the rich. Her parents are a working-class couple who moved to eastern Long Island because they had a beautiful daughter and thought her chances might be better down the road if she fell in with the right--i.e., wealthy and well-connected--people. This sounds vaguely like "Beauty and the Beast," but the beast in this case is a dissolute, lecherous old painter who never transforms into Prince Charming. Beauty, in the form of the lovely Theresa, is very much on her own.

McDermott's plucky heroine is certainly up to the challenge. Pretty, smart, caring, good with kids and animals, wise beyond her years--she even stares death right in the eye. There's not much that she can't take on and conquer. Not that she has to: when trouble does cross her path, McDermott simply brushes it out of her protagonist's way. One of this novel's more charming conceits is that life is not like a fairy tale. We do not always pay for our mistakes. This is interesting, but ultimately not very persuasive. Theresa, who seems so lovely at the outset--you want to ask her over to baby-sit your kids and cuddle your cats--is simply too good to be true. Does she never snap at the children she watches or run out of wonderfully imaginative games for them to play? If she does, we never hear about it.

McDermott writes beautifully. The best parts of "Child of My Heart" are the descriptions of ordinary daily routine, such as how the living room of the house looks in the morning, "when the sun lit the kitchen and the bedrooms but kept the living room cool and damp and smelling, because of the old stone fireplace, like a recently inhabited cave." When the writing does stumble, it's usually because McDermott is trying too hard to give her story significance. Then she sounds like someone who's gotten drunk on her own prose: "... the inevitable, insufferable loss buried like a dark jewel at the heart of every act of love."

Maybe McDermott should dislike more people. When she allows herself a rare burst of meanness, she can nail a character in a single sentence. Describing an unhappy overachieving teen, she writes, "There is no misanthrope like a chubby misanthrope." And Aunt Peg, that girl's unhappy, careworn mother, "was a thin and wiry woman, only, it seemed, a good night's sleep away from being pretty." But McDermott is far too sparing with the vinegar. As a result, "Child of My Heart"--like its heroine, so appealing at the outset--just leaves you feeling crabby once the sugar rush wears off.