The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Penguin Books, 2006
ISBN 0 14 303714-5
Spring is turning into summer, which means cool mornings, hot days and mild evenings. To me it also means it is porch time. I love to read while sitting on my porch on a warm spring day. Some weekend mornings will find me starting the day on the back porch with my coffee and a book. If I don’t get my reading time in until later in the day I grab my book and a glass of lemonade and head to the front porch. If it is a particularly busy day my porch time might come just before sunset. A few nights ago I was cozy on my porch swing and so engrossed in a book that I stayed until it got too dark to see the words on the page. The book I was engrossed in this time was The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. This book drew me in from the start and really held my interest for the first several chapters. The story got a little bogged down towards the middle but from mid-book on I was hooked again and didn’t want to put it down until I reached the end.
This is a story about good intentions, a bad choice and lives forever altered. The tragedy begins one snowy winter night in 1964 when Doctor David Henry an orthopedic surgeon has to deliver his own twins due to a blizzard that keeps his wife from reaching the local hospital. With the assistance of his nurse Caroline Gill, they deliver a boy (Paul) and a girl (Phoebe). The boy is healthy and his delivery went well. The doctor soon realizes another baby is on the way but when she is born he immediately recognizes the signs of Down’s syndrome. He makes a split second decision that will forever haunt his family. Rather than tell his wife Norah that Phoebe is born with Down’s syndrome he asks Caroline, the nurse to take the baby to an institution. Although a horrific thing to do without consulting his wife, readers must remember that the institutionalization of special needs children was much more common in 1964. Upon seeing his newborn daughter, David had an immediate flashback to his childhood. He watched his parents live in fear of losing his frail sister, who was born with a heart defect and had no chance of surviving into adulthood. David has vivid memories of her illness and the loss her death brought to his world. David’s desire to protect Norah from the sorrows of raising a frail child played a role in him giving Phoebe away. He tries to convince himself that he is acting to save his wife from heartache and loss. However, as expected, his act causes its own heartache and is the foundation of a wall that will forever separate him from the closeness he desires with his wife and son. After Norah revives from the delivery he tells her one baby died. He even allows her to hold a memorial service and visit the cemetery plot hoping she will put it behind her and focus on Paul. The day of the service he catches a glimpse of Caroline in the crowd and realizes he made a terrible mistake. After the service he rushes to Caroline’s apartment only to find her packed up and gone. Unbeknownst to him she didn’t have the heart to leave baby Phoebe in the institution and instead flees town determined to raise the baby herself. Two wrongs didn’t make a right and Caroline had plenty of secrets of her own. The doctor had a change of heart and made some attempts to right the wrongs of his past. It was too little too late but his efforts left me thinking more favorably of him than I did earlier in the book. Caroline should be admired for her love and devotion to Phoebe but she is not without guilt. She was secretly in love with David and holds onto Phoebe to get closer to him. She later marries truck driver Al and creates a comfortable life for the child. She is tireless as Phoebe’s advocate in education and society in general but through the years she refuses to let David right the wrong and be involved in Phoebe’s life. The novel switches back and forth and readers follow the children in parallel stories as they grow up, attend school, play sports, get jobs and eventually meet their first loves.
It was short sighted of David not to understand how the death of a child would impact his wife. He builds his wall little by little. Watching his wife’s grief over her loss doesn’t break his silence. The couple grows more and more distant and each of them make choices that further harm their marriage and alienate their son. David’s lie shades his marriage as he forever lives with his guilt. His act did not spare his wife. Norah ends up spending years mourning her lost child and wondering why her husband has put up a wall. Paul grows up in the shadow of his parent’s strained relationship with small twinges of longing for the sister he never knew but lost. Norah becomes a successful businesswoman but often runs to the arms of other men. David has a successful practice but hides in his photography. Paul has the normal ups and downs of childhood followed by rocky teenage years. He copes by getting lost in his music. The book is full of sad people. As I read I found myself angry at the characters one minute and rooting for them the next. Surprisingly, Phoebe alone seems to have a positive outlook on the life she has been dealt. She accepts her lot and lives in the peace her family members seek. Readers will love Phoebe and her simplistic view of life, her contentment and joy in all situations.
While I read the book I had many different emotions: Shock, anger, sorrow, compassion, sadness and the longing for resolution. As I have said before in previous reviews I like happy endings. As I got further into the story I didn’t see how there would ever be a resolution that would bring healing or joy. The ending wasn’t quite what I expected but given the events of the story a nice neat happily ever after just wouldn’t fit this one. The author’s ending left me with a few questions but was more realistic than if everything had been resolved in a neat and tidy way. Living to justify the past only haunts the present. Life brought a lie and perhaps only in death could the truth be revealed.
This was a good book and I would recommend it to readers, but I do want to point a few negatives. I don’t feel the author fully developed some of her minor characters. Norah’s sister Bree was a colorful character but not developed to her full potential in the story line. The author could have done more with Caroline’s husband Al as well. The biggest disappointment to me was the character of Rosemary. She seemingly had a major impact on the doctor yet her character fizzled out and never reentered the story. At first I thought maybe the author tried to introduce too many minor characters, but I think it’s more that she tried to add too many minor details about these characters and then didn’t know where to go with them. We see bits and pieces of their individual lives but some of the pieces never really fit with the overall plot and come across as miscellaneous tidbits. Some of these could be left out to help shorten the story and move the main plot along at a better pace. My second negative piggybacks this and is the author’s wordiness. The book was draggy in a few places and I think it was because she added too many wordy descriptions and retold things more than once. She described the same outfit numerous times and often mentioned a character’s physical features more than once. For me, once I know it was a floral skirt or that someone’s hair is black, the author doesn’t have to keep telling me. These are small minuses in an otherwise well written story. I really enjoyed the way the novel is written in parallel fashion flipping back and forth between Caroline / Phoebe and The Dr and his family. As I read about Paul and his adventures Phoebe was never far from my mind and then I was happy to get back to her story when the author took me back to her story line. I enjoyed the day the two finally met and the relationship they were able to salvage.
This is a powerful story centered around an event that is unthinkable yet highly believable for the time period. At various points while reading I was filled with sorrow for each character in the story. One lie caused huge damage but keeping the secret all those years, did even more. The story will make readers think about choices and how one decision can change so much. Family ties are strong and loss isn’t always forever. This novel shows that there is hope for even the most tangled lives. This is a book of love and loss. It is a story of family secrets, parallel lives, and a love strong enough to heal the past.