A CHALLENGING DISCUSSION CHOICE

Looking for a challenging book for your next discussion?  Try Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart.  It’s not a new book (published in 2002) nor is it a long one (242 pages), but its themes of childhood and death are timeless, and there’s something to talk about on almost every page, when you consider the exquisite quality of the author’s language and her ability to create characters and situations that are extremely perplexing.  McDermott’s story is set on Long Island in what seems to be the Fifties (she never explicitly tells us), and it concerns a fifteen-year-old girl named Theresa, the only child of older parents, who are away from home much of the time.  Left on her own, Theresa spends the summer entertaining her younger cousin, Daisy, while also caring for other people’s children and pets.   She is intelligent and beautiful, seemingly very interested in the welfare of her charges, but she can also be calculating and manipulative, and as the tale progresses, she lies, steals, even becomes sexually involved with a seventy-year-old man (a famous artist who is one of her employers).  What is going on here?  Because Theresa narrates the novel, we know only what she tells us, and there is much about her behavior and her experiences that is unexplained.  We have to try to understand why she makes such disturbing choices, and what the author is really saying about this character and her troubled life.  Initially it may seem as if McDermott has written just another take on coming of age, but the numerous portraits of neglected and suffering children and animals that she presents suggests to me that this is a work of far greater depth and complexity.  There’s even a possible religious subtext to the story, given the name Theresa’s prevalence in the history of the Catholic faith and certain similarities  shown between the heroine and saints bearing the same name.   This probably isn’t a book for every discussion group — some might find its subject matter too risky and the ambiguity of the rendering somewhat unsatisfying.  But few will quarrel with the breathtaking way McDermott puts her words together (she is also the prizewinning author of the bestseller, Charming Billy).  My own book group found the story unsettling and at times inexplicable — “Would any teenager really do that?” they demanded — but it surely provided the basis for a stimulating discussion.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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