The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

The Memory Keeper's DaughterDuring an unexpected late season snowstorm in 1964 in Lexington, Kentucky, Dr. David Henry makes a choice he will regret for the rest of his life. His pregnant wife goes into labor, but the route to the hospital is impassable. With the help of nurse Caroline Gill in his quiet clinic, he delivers his son Paul—and then, unexpectedly, Paul’s twin sister Phoebe, in whom David immediately recognizes the signs of Down syndrome. Anguished by the memories of his own sister’s death at age 12 from a heart condition, and the unrelenting grief of his mother, he asks Caroline to take Phoebe away and tells his wife their little girl was stillborn.

This is the secret that binds together yet separates the two families in Kim Edwards’ novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. We follow them for 25 years from four perspectives: David, whose protective instincts betray him, propelling him into photography as his solace; his wife Norah, who strives unsuccessfully to fill the void left by her lost child and guilt-ridden husband; Caroline, who builds a happy life with Phoebe despite the medical and educational obstacles they face; and later Paul, who resents his distant parents and mistakes their grief for blame.

A number of reviewers have remarked that the book is a bit too long. Still, the story is beautifully told, heartbreaking but hopeful. Like the photos that win acclaim for David, Edwards carefully uses light and shadow to capture the details of specific moments in the sequence of their lives: Norah’s panic over Paul’s broken arm; Phoebe’s joy at rescuing her kitten; Paul’s remorse at stealing the neighbor’s car. Lately I seem instinctively to be drawn to stories that turn out to be debut novels; this one, published in May, is one of the most compelling and compassionate I’ve read this year.

The personal twist is that my baby sister spotted this one and recommended it the day before our beautiful new niece was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. I am grateful that the cultural conventions of 1964 need not burden my niece, and that, like Phoebe, she will be surrounded by people who love her for being exactly who she was created to be.

P.S. The National Down Syndrome Congress has a lot of helpful public awareness resources online.

17. September 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 11 comments

Comments (11)

  1. I picked this up on your recommendation and will read it right after I finish The Short Day Dying.

    I did read Running With Scissors and have to say I don’t recommend that.

  2. D, is that the Burroughs memoir? I hear it is sexually graphic–is that why you don’t recommend it, or was it a style or theme thing?

  3. mindy, have you heard of children’s author james mayhew? he has written a series of books about katie, a girl who goes to museums with her grandmother and climbs into the paintings to experience them? they sound pretty cute & educational. maybe something to look at for the nieces & nephews.

  4. mindy, have you heard of children’s author james mayhew? he has written a series of books about katie, a girl who goes to museums with her grandmother and climbs into the paintings to experience them? they sound pretty cute & educational. maybe something to look at for the nieces & nephews…

  5. Mindy, yes it’s the Burroughs memoir. And yes, it is very sexually graphic, beyond what I could stand. I had to skip through parts, although it certainly made me more prayerful for children who have sexual identify confusion with the pressure of adults who lure them into physical relationships. In addition, his story is so bizzare it has the feel that it’s a bit made up…like in a year we’ll learn it’s the same as A Million Little Pieces.

  6. Sary, thanks for the tip on the Mayhew books. Sounds like Jasper Fforde for preschoolers!

    Diana, I appreciate the pastoral quality of your observations. You get right to the spiritual application of everything you read, often focusing on how the material helps you grow in your compassion toward others in life situations different from yours. Thanks for the perspective!

  7. OK, so now I’m making my way through this one — about one third. One obvious observation is that it does no good to hide the truth to protect someone from pain. Pain is part of our lives and through it we can glorify God. By deciding for his wife, David begins a long journey of deception, which causes a whole different kind of pain, plus denies him the comfort he too needs from his wife. Plus he does not, in fact, protect his wife, just allows for her to experience a different kind of pain.

    How often do we do this each day?

  8. Congratulations on the birth of your niece! :-)

  9. Thank you, Julana!

  10. Hi Mindy,

    The Calvary book club made this their August selection, and I am enjoying reading it right now!

    Miss you,
    R.

  11. Glad to hear that, Rach–it’s a great choice for a book club!