The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards, has had a nice run on the bestsellers’ list, I think, because it deals with the ways in which making a single bad decision can wreck lives.
To be honest, it was difficult for me to accept the premise of the novel. David Henry, a young orthopedic surgeon, delivers his own twins when his wife, Norah, goes into labor during a snowstorm. He has been able to drive as far as his office, and his nurse, Carolyn Gill, meets him there to help with the delivery. Norah, who is unconscious, first births a healthy boy, but afterwards, delivers a girl with Down Syndrome. Believing that Norah will be incapable of dealing with a mentally-disabled child, David gives the baby to Caroline to take to an institution. He then tells his wife that the second baby died.
Caroline tries to give the baby up at an institution, but doesn’t have the heart. She is single, in love with David (although he can’t be sure of this). With no ties, she decides to take the baby and run away to a new life. She then raises Phoebe as her own daughter, constantly battling the medical and everyday prejudice against a child with Down Syndrome.
That a single woman with a good career would take on the responsibility of a mentally-challenged child is a tough sell for me. Further, the baby was born in 1964 and the mother was unconscious. Perhaps this indicates that David didn’t have the right drugs in his office, but my mother gave birth to five children beginning in 1954, and was always conscious (though drugged). Knocking women out cold to deliver a baby seems dated. In addition, the prejudice against Phoebe runs deep. As a small child, she is stung by a bee and is allergic. When Carolyn takes her to the hospital, staff members assume that she will not want the child treated (meaning that Phoebe would die and no longer be a burden). Again, I knew people in the 1960s and 1970s with kids who had Down Syndrome, and seeking a quick way to have them die wasn’t part of any of their agendas. I really wish the book had been set back at least twenty years—or more—so that the many incidents would seem more believable.
Even though I couldn’t believe many of the details of this novel, I still enjoyed the main issues. David makes a life-altering mistake by not letting life take its course. Norah always grieves the daughter she believes has died. David must hide his lie for a lifetime and it makes him more distant and emotionally unavailable, so that Norah looks outward for emotional support. The twists and turns of their relationship and of David’s relationship to his son are more honest than other aspects of the book in examining how secrets destroy lives. Phoebe’s life is seen as something whole and containing its own happiness–despite what the people around her assume about her inability to lead a fulfilling existence.
This novel would be a good choice for the junior project. It might be fun for a student to look into some of the facts of the 1960s and 1970s—what childrearing was like, how Down Syndrome was ‘treated,’ etc. I’m guessing that most COHS students would truly enjoy the book. I know several people who have read it, and none had as difficult a time as I in suspending their disbelief in order to become engaged in the plotline.