The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter Book Cover

Author: Kim Edwards
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2005
Genre: Fiction

During a snowstorm in late 1964, Dr. and Mrs. David Henry rush to his small clinic in the middle of the night to give birth to their first child. The delivery unexpectedly produces boy / girl twins, and David immediately recognizes the signs of Down’s Syndrome in the little girl. As his wife is under heavy sedation and unaware of what is going on, David makes a snap decision to keep the healthy boy twin and sends the little girl off with his nurse, Caroline. As he is well aware of the challenges of raising a special needs child (and their low survival rate), he wishes to spare his wife what he sees as inevitable heartbreak and feels justified in instructing Caroline to institutionalize the little girl. When Norah awakens, David tells her that there were twin babies, but that the little girl died and he had her body taken away to spare her the torment. They name their twins Paul and Phoebe and hold a false memorial service for their daughter. One lie to Norah begets another and another, and as the story unfolds we see the devastation wrought on all of their lives as a result of David’s dishonesty.

Meanwhile, Caroline has decided to ignore the doctor’s wishes to institutionalize Phoebe, in part because she is in love with him. As a nurse, she also has knowledge of how bleak and dire most such places are for children, and can’t bear to release the baby. She runs away with Phoebe (with David’s blessing) and decides to raise her as her daughter. Under Caroline’s care, Phoebe flourishes and even attends school and becomes high-functioning and capable. Meanwhile, Norah has never gotten over the ‘death’ of her daughter, and she and David are growing apart despite their son being perfectly healthy. David refuses to have another child, and secretly sends money to Caroline for Phoebe. When Phoebe and Paul are thirteen, David contacts Caroline and wishes to meet his daughter. Caroline refuses, not wishing to hurt or confuse Phoebe and deciding that his interest in his daughter is too little, too late.

As Phoebe ages, she falls in love with another Down’s Syndrome boy and wishes to get married and live independently, which worries Caroline. Without giving too much more away, Caroline learns shortly after the twins’ 21st birthday that David has died suddenly and decides that Norah, despite being long since divorced from David, deserves to know the truth about her daughter.

I liked this story well enough to get through it enjoyably, but I would not re-read it or go out of my way to recommend it. The story might be more relatable to the generation who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, as they may remember a time when doctors were not always forthcoming with what was going on. I recall a woman I know relating a story about the birth of her daughter during that era, where there was a problem with the baby and she was not informed – the baby was simply whisked away and fixed. The doctor later said that he ‘did not wish to upset her.’ A person who had a similar experience might find the doctor lying to his drugged-up wife a little more conceivable than I did.

Fun Fact: The novel became a made-for-television movie with a pretty stellar cast. Dermot Mulroney played Dr. Henry, Gretchen Mol played Norah Henry, and Emily Watson played Caroline. Phoebe was played by Krystal Hope Nausbaum, an actress who has Down’s syndrome. The movie was highly rated by viewers and is available on DVD, despite having done away with a few of the characters who featured prominently in the book.

Bother if: The characters manage to be sympathetic despite their flaws, and when I reached the end, I found myself curious about what the future held for all of them. Even David, whom by all rights is a selfish, lying S.O.B., isn’t completely detestable. There is one part of the story that I found unlikely – if he was so determined to hide the Down’s Syndrome little girl from his wife, why say there were twins at all? In her haze, she would have believed that she’d just had the one healthy boy. Obviously David’s lie was required in order to set up the story, but I found it fairly implausible. That was really my only objection – otherwise, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a solidly engaging story, and well-written. It was interesting in that you see in great detail the consequences of David’s lie and how heavily it weighs on his conscience, and how Caroline manages to turn tragedy into triumph in the way that she raises Phoebe. Ironically (and much to my pleasure), it is Phoebe who has the happier childhood.

Don’t Bother if: I can see a lot of people hating the doctor’s character so much that it taints the entire story for them. He did, after all, lie to his wife and send his disabled daughter off to be raised by a stranger. Also, it’s not an action-packed story by any means – it’s twenty-plus years in the life of a very troubled family. It was heartbreaking to me that Phoebe was such a ray of sunshine and a wonderful person, but was nonetheless unwanted by her father.

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  • britheblogger

    I read this book in 2009 and felt very much the same way you did. It was likeable, but not something I would ever re read or enthusiastically recommend. I did not, however, have such strong feelings of dislike for the doctor. He was pretty awful, but I thought the author did a good job of bringing the reader into his emotional turmoil and portraying that his decision was difficult and negatively life changing. He loved his wife a lot and honestly thought he was doing the best thing for her. He thought he had to choose between his love for his wife and love for his child. Given that he had only known the child for a few minutes, I think its believable that he chose his wife. Plus, you brought up a very good point when you said medical practices were different in that time period. It was common to “spare” the mother knowledge of what was wrong with her children. He honestly thought he was doing the right thing, and by the time he figured out he was wrong, he felt it was too late to change it.

    • I suppose you’re right – he had only known the child for a few minutes. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Do you think that a mother would have made the same decision?

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