Everybody's favorite babysitter grows up

The heroine of Alice McDermott's new novel stands on the shore of adulthood, testing the waters.

Call it "Reviving Ophelia - Again." In 1994, Mary Pipher galvanized the nation with her exposé of the poisonous social system girls enter when they become teenagers. This year, it's the novelists' turn, and their descriptions of adolescence are even more provocative than Pipher's psychological study.

Alice McDermott's "Child of My Heart" is the third stunningly well-written novel this year to show a teenage girl confront challenges no one should ever have to endure. Her book follows the wrenching "Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold, which opens with the rape and murder of its 14-year-old narrator, and "In the Image," by Dara Horn, which watches a high-schooler search for God after the death of her best friend.

McDermott's approach is remarkably minimalist, particularly compared to these two other terrifying and exhilarating novels. Through most of this poignant coming-of-age story nothing dramatic takes place - lunch, sunbathing, changing a diaper - but it's arresting nonetheless because McDermott has such a fine ear for the blended tones of childhood and adulthood.

Fifteen-year-old Theresa lives on the east side of Long Island, as close to the monied class as her parents can place her. It's all part of their weirdly deliberate plan to help her catch the eye of a wealthy young man. To that end, they encourage her to baby-sit and pet-sit in "the right sort of homes," all the better to cross paths with the heir of some famous fortune.

As an only child, Theresa has long been included in the world of adults, and she describes her parents and their plans with disturbing perception. This is the story of the summer she hovered knowingly on the threshold between girlhood and womanhood.

Her narrative demonstrates all the revisionist insight and self-deceit of retrospection. It vacillates subtly between justifying her innocence and confessing her complicity in the tragedy of that season.

With a faltering pose of witty objectivity, Theresa suggests that she was a far better parent than any of the actual parents around her. Rich or poor, young or old, all these mothers and fathers suffer from the kind of self-absorption that makes their children suffer - either the physical neglect she sees in the dilapidated home next door or the psychological abandonment she witnesses in the mansions of the rich and famous.

Fortunately for all these kids, whether dressed in stained T-shirts or fresh Baby Gap jumpers, Theresa is a reflexively good caregiver. She knows how a well-timed fairy tale or rabbit hunt can obliterate hurt feelings. She knows how to enlist children in their own best interests - to nap, eat right, and treat each other kindly. She knows how to keep them from thinking about the shadows of neglect cast across their lives. Unfortunately, what she doesn't know - and still can't fully admit - is when her charges need more help than she can provide.

It's beautiful and sad to watch. Theresa responds to these needs by establishing a rhythm of care that drowns out the shouts of angry parents, the squeal of their cars driving away, the obscene sounds of adultery upstairs. And she describes all this and her own simple days in a bilingual voice that speaks both innocence and wisdom.

For Theresa it was a time when she clung to her girlhood by embracing the children around her - particularly her little cousin Daisy who came to spend a few months at the beach. She's fragile and easily bruised, and in the twilight of this remembered summer, a sweet symbol of the waning child in Theresa's own heart.

After all, Theresa sees how sexy she is and how her body distracts all the fathers she works for. "My easy-to-admire childhood beauty," she recalls, "was quickly becoming something a little thinner and sharper and certainly more complicated."

Indeed, every man in the novel fantasizes about her. (As a parent desperately in need of baby-sitters, I had my own fantasies about Theresa - more chaste, but no less intense.) She walks through a thin fog of lechery that seeps out of the men around her - an atmosphere that repels and excites her, even as she senses it marks the passing of her own innocence.

Eventually, it's clear that Theresa is using her considerable powers of distraction and persuasion on us. Her story is a gorgeous attempt to conflate her sexual initiation with the death of a child under her care, as if both these events were regrettable but inevitable steps toward maturity. It's a disorienting strategy that complicates the novel considerably and calls into question all the self-possessed wisdom we like to imagine we've gained about our own past.

McDermott is something of a specialist in the literature of wry sorrow - she's Irish, after all. Her previous novel, "Charming Billy" (National Book Award winner, 1998), 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.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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