The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Author: Kim Edwards
Date Read: April 18, 2012


I expected not to enjoy this book, thinking that it would be something much darker and less positive than it actually is. From the first page, however, I was, almost against my will, pulled in, and I couldn’t put the book down again until finishing today.

First, Edwards is a very gifted writer. Her style is smooth and feels unconsciously graceful. Writers of some modern literature seem to try very hard to put sentences and paragraphs together in a way that is both artistic and clear – it bothers me when I can almost feel the writer struggling to produce something poetic. Edwards’ words and the ensuing images they convey are beautifully natural.

Second, the story of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is well developed. David, a physician, delivers his twin son and daughter, the latter who has Down’s syndrome. To save his wife from the “tragedy” of having a disabled daughter who he believes will likely die young (as was more often the case for people with Down's syndrome during that time), David chooses to give their daughter to an institution while his wife is still passed out after her labor. When she wakes, he tells his wife that their daughter was stillborn, in itself a tragedy from which his wife spends years trying to recover.

The rest of the book unwinds over a span of about 25 years. It reveals the unforeseen damage that David committed to himself and his family when he attempted to spare them the difficulties of having a disabled daughter. Edwards has created characters who are richly layered – their motives and feelings are not always clear, but can often be traced, albeit circuitously, back to the night when David made his impetuous decision.

To me, this was a bit of a morality tale (without being pedantic) about our human hubris to assume that we can pick and choose the elements that compose our lives, thereby creating an aesthetic world that we control, and that matches up to the dreams we all have for ourselves. David, by simply removing the unexpected element of a disabled daughter from his and his wife’s lives, thought that he’d be setting his life’s course back on the right track. Yet the lie he tells to his wife creates an insurmountable wall that distances them from one another, and his lifelong guilt sends him inward, away from his son and wife.

With such ideas as these, it is easy to imagine how The Memory Keeper’s Daughter could have turned into a depressing portrait of the way that one man destroyed his wife, son, daughter, and himself. However, Edwards managed to make this into a well-wrought story about the ways that people struggle, sometimes ineffectually, to fix the mistakes they’ve made over the years, so filled with hope that their lives, and the lives of those they love, can still be mended. I think it is this concept of hopefully moving forward, futilely attempting to create a semblance of order in the world through different elements of art (photography for David, music for his son), that lends the book and its characters the grace and humanity that makes the reader forgive them, and also hope for their eventual freedom from the various deceptions by which they’ve bound themselves.

There are other key themes throughout this book: The development of feminism in Norah, David’s wife, who grows from being a mildly oppressed housewife into a woman who begins to realize that she wants much more from her life; the struggles for parents of the mentally disabled to create a viable lifestyle for their children through educational and employment reforms; and finally, the possibility for second chances.

**Added Note re: the Title: I just read several of the well-liked reviews for this book on Goodreads. Quite a few people were bothered by the title of "Memory Keeper" being applied to David. When reading, I thought there might actually be two people to whom this title could refer: David (because Norah gives him a "Memory Keeper" brand camera), but perhaps more aptly, Caroline. Through her actions, Caroline demonstrates that she is more Phoebe's mother than David is Phoebe's father. Further, throughout the majority of the book, Caroline is the "memory keeper," the one who chooses to "keep" hidden the horrible actuality of what David did on the night of his children's births. For various reasons, she does not reveal her memories to anyone. I guess the question is, why would Edwards choose to refer to Caroline in the title of this book? I think she may have titled this for Caroline because the nurse took a dark and destructive situation and turned it into one that brought much joy into her life, and the life of Phoebe. Caroline is the true hero of the book – unlike David, who runs from the responsibility that life puts in his path, Caroline picks that responsibility up, and finds ways to grow and prosper from it. For this reason, I truly think that Caroline deserves to have this book named after herself, and to have Phoebe referred to as her “daughter.” On first glance, this book’s title and plot focus on David, the other “memory keeper.” On second glance, I think we’re shown that the real story is about Caroline and Phoebe, as Caroline is the one who, in the end, chooses to divulge her memory of the night 25 years earlier to Norah. Caroline is the one who finally brings everything full circle, and gives Norah and Paul the opportunity to heal.