Alice McDermott writes about Irish-American blue-collar neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, and summer getaways on Long Island. Someone in her novels always has a cottage there, acquired by a stroke of good fortune and maintained in spite of the surrounding gentrification. She writes about the generation before hers: the policemen, mailmen, shoe salesmen and streetcar conductors still recovering from the Second World War; and their wives, who make do, limited by the meagreness of their possible ambitions. Familiar worries run through her work: the troubles of drink, marriage, children, family and – involved in all of these – sentiment and sentimentality; the ease with which we deceive ourselves, suffer for the deceptions, and suffer when they are exposed. ‘It’s a terrible thing, Father,’ the widow in McDermott’s last novel, Charming Billy, declares, ‘to come this far in life only to find that nothing you’ve felt has made any difference.’ The local priest and McDermott herself try to convince her otherwise, and partly succeed, if only because sentiment makes its own indisputable claims. Billy’s cousins sit up late discussing his death: ‘Both equally feared growing sentimental. And yet something needed to be said on a night like this.’ It needed to be said in order to reveal the world as it ‘should be seen, through a veil of tears . . . where the passing of time, the cruelty of war, the failure of hope, the death of the young could be discussed and examined’.
McDermott’s new novel, Child of My Heart, argues against this determination to do justice to the misery in the world. The story is set on the Long Island shore and deals, for once, mostly in the lives of children. It describes the battle between sentiment and an alternative to it. The novel is less successful than Charming Billy because McDermott’s heart isn’t in the answer. The narrator, Theresa, is a very pretty 15-year-old whose working-class parents have moved to a small cottage in the Hamptons, hoping that their daughter will attract a wealthy husband among the children of their grander neighbours. One summer, her ailing cousin Daisy comes to visit. Those weeks on the shore contain both the beginning of Daisy’s decline and the last and best moments of her careless childhood. Theresa’s charms have made her the town’s favourite babysitter, and together the cousins amble about their holiday duties, caring for dogs, cats, children, old men, each other.
‘I knew,’ Theresa explains, ‘in the way 15-year-old girls know things – intuitively, in some sense; in some sense based purely on the precise and indifferent observation of a creature very much in the world but not yet of it – that Daisy’s parents resented any number of things, not the least of which, of course, was Daisy.’ ‘Poor’ Daisy lives in Queens, crowded by siblings and neglected by parents who have maintained a sense that their own relationship is the most important one in the house. Theresa visits them one winter and takes Daisy under her wing, confident in her powers of giving pleasure and easing hearts. Theresa’s beauty obliges her to reciprocate the world’s flattery – she likes to pretend that things are prettier than they are. When, for example, she and Daisy return from a walk in Queens with two armfuls of lollipops for the other children, Theresa, to account for them, invents a fable about a willow, which ‘belongs to an old couple . . . whose only child, a little boy, had dreamed of a lollipop tree in his front yard on the night he died . . . Once a year and only on this day . . . they make his dream come true by filling their willow tree with lollipops.’ A ‘sharp’ sister turns on Daisy and asks if the story is true. ‘You should have come,’ the girl answers ‘matter-of-factly, skirting the lie’. At this point, for the first time, the narrator calls Daisy ‘child of my heart’. McDermott’s desire to create a symbol is obvious: a story about a walk and a few handfuls of candy is now a story about memory and death.
The character of ‘poor Daisy’ is unashamedly Victorian. She has pretty red Irish hair and pale skin and speaks with the quiet wisdom of innocence. She insists on wearing her brand-new pair of spangly slip-ons, whose plastic jewels change colour with the sky. Millais would happily have painted her; Dickens, like McDermott, would have killed her off. Yet McDermott is much too good a writer – and elsewhere in her work too coldly plausible – for us to doubt that she will somewhere address the problem of these sugary excesses. Which brings us back to the question of sentimentality, and the conflict between our desire to do justice to the common miseries of life, on the one hand, and our consciousness that nothing we feel will ‘make any difference’, on the other – that sentiment, in fact, does more harm than good. When a neighbour’s cat dies, Theresa is called in to console the weeping child who discovered it. ‘It was not Curly anymore, that lifeless thing Debbie had cradled, not in my recollection of it. It was the worst thing. It was what I was up against.’ She realises later that her own pretty fabrications have played the enemy’s part: her tales of heaven and lollipop laurels sweeten death and make it palatable. The cousins who argue over Billy in her last novel discuss the same alternatives: did he drink himself to death because he was sick and needed help, or because he refused to reconcile himself to the facts of his life? McDermott and Theresa fear the sentimental because it colludes with forces that should be resisted. Daisy wonders if she’ll ever come back to the shore; Theresa reassures her falsely and
fondly . . . with all the authority I knew she gave me, all the authority I knew I had, here in my own kingdom, but I also said it against a flash of black anger that suddenly made me want to kick those damn cats off the bed and banish every parable, every song, every story ever told, even by me, about children who never returned.
It isn’t clear, however, what the alternative to sentimentalism is. To see life plainly means accepting futility in one way or another; to see it sentimentally involves dressing up futility as something else. In her other novels, McDermott tends to argue for what Robert Frost called the need to be versed in country things: the need to understand the indifference of a world that appears to mourn with us. Like Frost, she implies that the best we can do is exploit our own capacity for indifference: ‘They, since they were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs,’ Frost once wrote, and Charming Billy ends with the unlikely marriage of the two people who had the greatest cause to mourn Billy’s death. But Child of My Heart suggests a somewhat different faith.
The fathers of Theresa’s charges respond less and less paternally to their babysitter’s charms. And though she seems able to rebuff their advances, she isn’t used to the way she warms to them. An ageing artist, anxious about his posthumous fame, distracts himself by teasing her. His wife, before leaving for the city, offers Theresa some advice. ‘If my husband tries to fuck you while I’m gone . . . don’t be frightened. He’s an old man and he drinks. Chances are it will be brief.’ Theresa’s initial revulsion gives way to curiosity; the plot develops. She ignores the touch of the artist’s hand against her thigh, and later seeks him out in his studio; she’s carrying a drink she says the housekeeper told her to bring him. Such deceptions are new to her: ‘This,’ she comments, ‘was not my kind of lying.’ But the old man also makes her suspicious of her ‘kind of lying’. ‘All my life,’ he says, ‘I’ve known women who could do this. Turn their backs and make things disappear. It’s a wonderful talent.’ Which is one way of putting exactly what Theresa is good at: she keeps the growing evidence of Daisy’s illness from the adults around her, hoping on the one hand to make the problem vanish, and conscious, on the other, that little good and much unpleasantness may come of its being found out. Such vanishing acts require, in the painter’s estimation, ‘a bit too much irony’. A surprising choice of words, perhaps, though irony and sentimentalism depend on the dissonance between manner and matter, and they have a way of developing into each other. Slowly, she gives in to his version of the world: ‘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.’ He finds plenty to his liking.
Ageing artists aren’t easy to write, especially from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl. From this angle, sententiousness and wisdom look very much alike, and though McDermott clearly intends to depict both in the old man’s character, it’s not always obvious which is meant to be which. Nor does his careless seduction of the pretty narrator seem very plausible. ‘But all his movements were sure, and I trusted whatever design he followed, out of his own head, relieved, for just a few minutes, of the need to follow any design of my own.’ This seems a very cool way of describing a young girl’s first sexual encounter, especially with a 70-year-old man; it suggests that the argument in McDermott’s book has got hold of the plot and started to tell it what to do. The appeal of both irony and sentimentalism is that they free you from the facts, and this, above all, is what Theresa desires. What she admires about the old man, a determinedly modern artist, is that he can paint ‘pictures of nothing’. And though she seemed sick of sentimental stories after the cat’s death, Theresa wished only to replace them with still more perfect and unlikely tales ‘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’.
Realism intrudes at the end; what has been foreshadowed shall not fail. The great strength of Charming Billy, however, was that the arguments about life developed naturally out of the life described. In Child of My Heart the reverse seems true, and though this may be part of the point – reflecting as it does Theresa’s ambition to invent her world – the novel suffers for it and never lives up to the crowded promise of its first sentence: ‘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.’