Book Title: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Author: Kim Edwards
Original Publication Date: 2005
Edition Read: Penguin Books (2006) paperback
Total Pages: 401
Reason Read: My mother encouraged me to read it
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“When she’d worked in David Henry’s office she had been so young, so lonely and naive, that she imagined herself as some sort of vessel to be filled up with love. But it wasn’t like that. The love was within her all the time, and its only renewal came from giving it away.” ~ pg. 247
Giving It Away. That is the big theme in this book. “It” takes many forms – love, family, sex, secrets. Caroline Gill was a young nurse in Dr. David Henry’s office when his bride went into labor in the middle of the night during a freak snow storm. Caroline was the only person able to meet them at the office for the delivery. More surprising than the snow, was the fact that David’s wife, Norah, gave birth to twins. The boy – Paul – was born first. As Norah was wiped out with medication, a daughter – Phoebe – arrived. While Paul was healthy and strong, his sister was not. Born with Down syndrome in 1964, Phoebe was weak and not considered to have much chance for a healthy or productive life. Because David had grown up with a sickly sister whose young death caused inherent sadness for himself and his parents, he made a judgment call that would have a profound effect on everyone in the room. He decided to give his daughter away to Caroline to bring to an institution and tell his wife that their daughter had died at birth. Caroline, horrified by the institution, decided to keep Phoebe for herself instead.
What a doozy. This book came to me at an interesting time. Had I read it when it was first published, I am sure I would have felt very differently about it and its characters. But I didn’t. I read it as a new mother. Someone who spent a lot of time praying for a healthy child and not one with birth defects or a stillbirth due to my “advanced” age. I also had an emergency c-section creating a detached role for me in the birthing process that forced me to rely completely on the doctors on-hand and my spouse to communicate all that was happening. The year before my pregnancy, one of my dearest friends gave birth to a beautiful baby boy with Down syndrome. When I met him he was so insanely sweet, he smiled with his entire body – curling up the corners of his mouth as well as curling his arms and legs around me. And finally, I have an older cousin with mental retardation who was born near the time setting of this book. Her mother, my aunt, refused to institutionalize her, much to the chagrin of her doctors and society around her. My cousin is in her 50’s and opens her heart to everyone she meets. In return, she is loved by practically everyone in her county.
So I can relate to many of the characters and some of the things they go through in this story. Maybe too much. I had a lot of anger, dislike and frustration for Dr. David Henry. No matter how much I got to live inside his head and his heart, I never could arrive at that emotion of sympathy. He was tormented by his decision instantaneously and forever after. But I never got the sense that he was upset because he missed his little girl. No. He missed the fact that he didn’t have a healthy little girl. He felt bad that he had to shield his wife from the pain his little girl would surely cause them. Because she would have struggles – with her health and within society. It was all about him. About how he never got over his sister’s early death from poor health. About how he decided to become a doctor to “fix” everyone. Blah blah blah.
I felt sorry for Norah – being so cruelly duped (“sheltered”) by a husband playing God for her own good. But I also ended up disliking her character too because she went from being a naive 1950’s housewife stereotype to one of those 1980’s self-absorbed preppy cliches.
The character I cared for was Caroline. She was heroic in “saving” baby Phoebe and spent her life fighting for the rights of kids with disabilities. She also started out very naive and turned into a strong woman. Of course, it could be argued, she kept the same secret that David did from Norah. But I rationalize this because she wasn’t the one to lie about the baby’s death. She instead, gave that little girl a life.
I enjoyed the author’s way with words. She created characters that stirred great emotions and I think it is challenging to do this when writing from so many different perspectives. I was least convinced by the teen angst son Paul exhibited. His character felt more like a character than a person to me. But maybe that’s just because I was never a teenage boy.
In an author interview printed at the conclusion of my book’s copy, she states that in her research with families with Down syndrome children, she was struck by the struggle those parents go through “to make their children visible to the world.” Her book is, in a way, a tribute to that.