Child of My Heart
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23
By Michael Schiefelbein
Alyson Books, 220 pp., $13.95 (paper)
Hard to put your finger on this girl Theresa, the narrator at the heart of Alice McDermott's new novel, Child of My Heart. Yes, she's a trustworthy soul, a 15-year-old cat-sitter and dog-walker out on the eastern end of Long Island in the 1950s, one foot on what looks like some path to sainthood, Theresa of the Little Flower her patron saint.
And, yes, they say she looks like a young Liz Taylor (soon to look, they'll say, like a young Jackie Kennedy), and this summer she's a baby-sitter too: to Flora, the two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of a 72-year-old abstract-expressionist painter-father, who deflowers our Theresa near the end of Child of My Heart with Theresa's full understanding and cooperation.
And, yes, she's a companion this same summer to her 8-year-old cousin Daisy, whose working-class parents in Queens Village on the western end of Long Island have allowed their daughter this temporary escape from a household already overrun with kids and overruled by an image of the bleeding Sacred Heart. But this Theresa ...
Her largely absentee parents aren't rich either, but they want what's best for their one child, and that means a good Catholic boarding school for girls (where Theresa's a day student) and a good chance that she'll meet up with and marry into one of the neighborhood's self-thinking blueblooded families, who employ Theresa these summers to look after their cats and dogs and children and houses when the parents have neither the time nor, from all indications, the inclination to look after anything but themselves. And why shouldn't they hire her? She's too good to be true: patient and imaginative and fun and preternaturally gifted when it comes to caring for kids or pets or houses and dependable as hell. Plus, she hasn't apparently a friend in the world: not one word once in all these pages from anybody her own age, just the sound of all these kids all the time seeking Theresa's comforting attention or a grateful word here and there from parents far less of the time.
Which puts Theresa and our attention squarely on that mystery middle ground of childhood turning adulthood. The added mystery is McDermott's sure handling of such an unsure stage of life and state of mind but hard to say if she's written a coming-of-age novel, a ghost story, a love story, a meditation on faith, a meditation on art, a family drama, or a melodrama. There are elements here of each, each with an uncanny way of working right under your skin. You're thinking the obvious: tugged heartstrings. I'm saying: bruisings. The story is skillfully mounted, beautifully written, very quietly unsettling.
More "unsettling": If local author Michael Schiefelbein's name rings a bell, think last year's hardcore horror show, Vampire Vow. This month, it's Blood Brothers, the chief difference between the two being: This time out, you won't find any vampires on the prowl within and outside the walls of a monastery and only slightly fewer, less graphic bloodlettings to go with the man-size sex scenes. But we're still within and outside the walls of a monastery, only now we're in Toledo, Spain. But still no middle ground about it: A few pages in and you'll know this either ain't your thing or you'll be busy turning pages, be it for the blood, sex, or fears. The fears being: Will good monk Bernardo Esteban make it to his ordination as priest with his conscience intact and his faith in a forgiving God in one piece, and will Father Juan Ramón Fuertes, a real bruiser, get his revenge on Bernardo's rich father, who had Juan Ramón's own father (Bernardo's father's business partner) killed and Juan Ramón's mother raped and killed while the 7-year-old Juan Ramón was forced by Bernardo's father to watch? Got it? It needs adding that Bernardo and Juan Ramón are all over each other practically from the get-go?
Celibacy and Bernardo's vows? (Forget Juan Ramón's. He certainly has.) Bernardo's love of "Cristo" versus his conflicting love for Juan Ramón? Those issues are here and on top of events leading to Schiefelbein's suspense-thriller climax. But, as Bernardo puts it, the sex is an "unsolved" problem, and later, guiltily, "It's too much. It's too much," when he isn't quoting John of the Cross to make matters more confusing and isn't asking Juan Ramón about the older monks, how they've coped, how they've made their peace with celibacy.
Juan Ramón replies, "You're asking the wrong person," and Juan Ramón's right. And just you wait. Bloodsucker Brother Victor's due back in bookstores this coming June.