CHILD OF MY HEART

By Alice McDermott

Farrar Straus Giroux. 242 pp. $23

From the first paragraph in Child of My Heart, when we hear about the litter of wild rabbits "not meant to live," we know that loss and sorrow will infuse and inform this book. "I had in my care that summer," Theresa, the narrator, tells us, "four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist." But Theresa is only 15 years old during the summer she describes, and the real question is: Where are all the parents -- and animal lovers, for that matter -- who should have taken responsibility for this pathetic band of orphans?

Theresa has been born beautiful, of working-class parents; and, as in a fairy tale, her parents have moved to a place where the wealthy live (the east end of Long Island, in this case), so that their ravishing daughter may grow up to find a Prince Charming who will give her the bright and glowing future she deserves. Also as in any fairy tale, Theresa is as kind as she is beautiful -- absolutely deserving of any good fortune she may encounter.

For the present, though, she spends her time as a babysittter and animal caretaker. Her charges represent an array of class, caste and species distinctions: Two dogs are owned by an affluent, tweedy couple, but there's another disturbing stray or two. The three cats are named after the Three Stooges; together, those kitties are an accident waiting to happen. The five Moran kids are poor, wretched and routinely neglected. Flora, the toddler, is the daughter of an artist and his latest wife who couldn't care less about what it might mean to be parents -- to put a child's interest before their own. Little Daisy, Theresa's cousin, is yet another orphan, at least in metaphorical terms. She's the daughter of a grumpy, fertile Irish-Catholic couple, and in the hullabalooing cluster of her siblings, she has been all but forgotten. As a radiant, special human being, Theresa recognizes little Daisy as one of her own kind, and invites the child to spend an idyllic summer on Long Island as her guest.

This is a beach story, a summer story. The several days in which it takes place are drenched in sun and sand, impromptu picnics, simple games, long afternoons spent savoring what it's like to be alive. The neighborhood looks like paradise, and Theresa does all she can to bolster this effect. She has an enormous belief in her own powers to heal and to transform. As she says more than once, she's both beautiful and young, and these attributes, combined with her ability to spin pretty stories out of drab reality, give her the sense that she can rule her small world.

Thus, Daisy becomes "Daisy Mae," and Flora baby "Flora Dora." The Moran kids serve as devoted, Arthurian retainers. Theresa tells them all stories of lollipop trees, but more than that, she does them the inestimable favor of paying them close attention. They flock to Theresa and render back their own gifts of unconditional love.

This is the kind of book that might give some male readers a headache because, when the chips are down, who cares about a gaggle of dogs and cats who don't contribute much to the scheme of things, those crusty Moran children with their dirty clothes and runny noses, and poor Flora Dora, who sucks vile red punch out of a baby bottle? Who even cares about a bright 8-year-old or a self-absorbed teenager who thinks she's queen of the world? In military terms, beings like this exist only as targets. In intellectual terms, they can't scrape up one coherent thought among them. They take up air and demand inconvenient personal responsibility from those around them. Basically, they're a drag.

Theresa provides the men passing through this novel a focus for their nostalgic desire, but her legendary compassion stops when it comes to them. (Perhaps this is because she's been, in effect, promised to someone like them in the future.) She lets the men kiss her, and sometimes more, but her affection and sympathy are saved for those in her care. It's a make-believe world that Theresa has dreamed up (in some achingly sad way she -- in her "Paper Moon" fantasies -- resembles Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire"), but the real world is stronger than lollipops and endearing nicknames. The death toll is considerable in this book; those poor wild rabbits are only the foreshadowing.

I hate to say anything even remotely negative about a distinguished author like Alice McDermott, but she has a bit of a problem here with her heroine, her saint. Theresa does not resemble in any way a real adolescent girl. Her lack of girlfriends is rationalized in one sentence, but where are all the darling young boys on Long Island, and why aren't they giving her a call? Why does Theresa choose to devote her life to the neglected and unloved? She does because the author wants her to, and, in the end, that isn't enough. But the quality of the writing, and the exemplary sentiments which that writing expresses, should keep the minds of readers off that persistent problem. *

Carolyn See's reviews appear in Style on Fridays; her most recent book is "Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers."

Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.