The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

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.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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2 Responses to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

  1. Mrs. Sikes says:

    I grabbed this book in an Airport bookstore. My interest was personal. When I turned one, a three-year-old cousin of mine died (1970’s). She had been born with Down’s Syndrome and her memory is confusing for me and haunting for the family. I read Memory Keeper’s Daughter because I thought it would help me understand the history of my family better.
    It was strange to read of one family who chose to live with a Down’s Syndrome child and a family who could have been described as being “spared” a Down’s baby. Unfortunately, the man who thought he was “sparing” his family did more damage to everyone involved. I had not been aware of what doctors and society thought of children born with Down’s at that time in history. I struggled with the choices the characters made- trying to believe and be sympathetic- but thinking I would have done things totally differently the whole time.
    I was sympathetic to all the parties involved. After my cousin passed, the marriage and love between her parent’s could not survive either. My whole family changed very much. The stories I hear about the family before she passed convey a different family than the one we have now. She is described to me as a special angel that everyone loved so incredibly hard. . . but whose death was devastating and something not everyone recovered from.

  2. Maria Thornhill says:

    Oh Vic,
    I had a whole differernt take on this novel. It didn’t surprise me that as even a professional male he could stoop to such levels. What did consume me was the feeling of emptiness the mother felt throughout most of her life without the real knowledge of what happened. This feeling of loss and want was comparable to Caroline Gill, a person who was alone and empty until the birth of this child. This gave Caroline purpose and meaning in her life. I was, however, disgusted that she would allow the doctor continuing correspondence through letters and pictures, and would somehow be distrubed about what he said. I think she had the upper hand and should have written him off using the threat of disclosing his secret. End of story!

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