In this issue:
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is emotionally engaging and thought-provoking in its exploration of the ramifications an initial falsehood can cause. What could be a better end-of-summer read than a romp with Fannie Flagg, author of Can't Wait To Get To Heaven, an upbeat, on-the-nose novel to make you laugh out loud. Judith Viorst, writing in I'm Too Young To Be Seventy And Other Delusions, supplies the kind of good laughter that finds you shaking your head in agreement.
This novel stretches from 1964 to 1989, with several years’ leap between the chapters. It’s episodic, but the episodes are tightly connected by the tissue of deceits woven from a single lie of breathtaking scope.
The story begins as Dr. David Henry and his beautiful wife, Norah, are expecting their first child. Labor sets in during an unexpected winter snowstorm, and David cuts short their hazardous trip to the hospital when his car begins to slide on the ice. He pulls into his medical clinic, and proceeds to deliver the child himself, with the help of his nurse, Caroline Gill.
He is elated when his son appears, a little boy they have decided to name Paul. Minutes afterwards, however, an unexpected second child is born, a little girl. She bears all the symptoms of having Down’s syndrome. As David knows, Down’s is manifested in many ways — mental retardation, lack of muscle tone and coordination, and often heart problems. David, who lost a beloved sister to heart trouble when she was twelve, impulsively decides to tell Norah that the baby died at birth, convinced that he is protecting his wife from the grief of rearing and losing a child later on. He gives the baby, whom they were going to name Phoebe, to his nurse, with instructions to deliver her to an institution that he has heard about over in Louisville.
Caroline, who has been in love (unrequited) with David, is deeply dismayed and reluctant to obey his directions, but she takes the baby as he has instructed. Once she sees the institution, however, she cannot leave Phoebe there. It is a depressing, wretched place. She takes the baby home, and soon thereafter simply leaves the city to begin a new life as a single mother.
Norah, devastated by the loss of her daughter, cannot understand David’s inability to mourn or speak of the child. During the years that Paul is growing up, Norah tries to blunt her grief for Phoebe (and her growing distance from David) with alcohol, and long, fast drives into the countryside. A series of affairs does little to help. Eventually, she decides to pursue a career. Her involvement with her job as a travel agent eventually pulls her back from the edge. She is so successful that she winds up owning the agency. But the marriage that had seemed so close and loving at the start has been irreparably damaged by Phoebe’s supposed death and David’s deceit.
David, meanwhile, discovers a love for photography, and throws himself into his work. As his marriage deteriorates, he is forced to admit to himself the enormity of his actions. It takes a trip to his hardscrabble home place several years later for him to unravel the tangle of his emotions.
Caroline, meanwhile, rears Phoebe with love and courage. She meets a good man and marries him, and he proves to be a wonderful, accepting father for Phoebe. The recounting of their experiences in rearing a child with Down’s Syndrome provides an amazing look at how far this country has come since the ‘60’s in its understanding of and accommodation for differently-abled children.
Throughout Phoebe’s childhood, Caroline keeps David informed of the child’s progress by mail, without revealing her whereabouts. He, in turn, sends money for Phoebe’s support, carefully hiding his actions from Norah.
Eventually, David dies of a heart attack, and at that point, Caroline visits Norah to tell her about Phoebe. The shock, of course, is tremendous, both to Norah and to Phoebe’s brother/twin, Paul.
It is at this point that I have problems with the book. In the first place, David’s death is merely announced, referred to in the past tense. We have no inkling as to his final thoughts, if any, although there is a nod to his desire to confess when he writes — and tears up — a letter to the estranged Norah. Having been privy to his innermost feelings and decisions throughout the book, the lack of a final glimpse feels like a bit of a cheat.
The story verges into soap opera with Norah’s convenient re-marriage to a French Canadian named Frederic who seems entirely too good to be true, and with Paul’s decision to move to Pittsburgh to be near his newly-discovered sister. The denouement seems rushed, with all ends tidily tied up after nearly 400 pages of angst, deceit, and the messiness of living. Suddenly, the characters are speaking in with the kind of direct language people are rarely if ever capable of using with one another, except in romance novels and soap operas.
Perhaps it doesn’t do to quibble; it is, after all, the author’s prerogative to tell the story as she likes. But to me, there were other, minor moments when I questioned the likelihood of events. For instance, is it probable that a well-trained doctor wouldn’t know that his wife was carrying twins, even back in 1964 before they had Ultrasound photos? In those days, there were stethoscopes that could pick up two heartbeats, never mind the careful monitoring of weight gain and fetal size that my own doctor subjected me to (and predicted a possibility of twins, incorrectly as it turned out).
There was also the ability to feel a child’s position in utero by external laying on of hands. One may conceive of the error happening if the babies were in an odd position during monthly visits to a doctor, but sleeping next to a doctor/father? Not likely! Surely at some point when he put his hands on his wife’s abdomen, as expectant fathers are wont to do, he would have felt or at least suspected the second child.
And then there’s the question of birth certificates and last names. When Caroline registered Phoebe in school, how did she get around that problem? Phoebe was presented to the world as Phoebe Gill, but what did Caroline do for documentation? Even in the ‘60’s there were moments when one needed proof of identity.
These are minor quibbles, but they do get in the way of the story.
That said, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is emotionally engaging and thought-provoking in its exploration of the ramifications an initial falsehood can cause. The depiction of a family struggling and failing despite good intentions and failed efforts rings true. And the evocation of time and place is both vivid and lush, thanks to the beautiful writing. In all, it’s a novel worth one’s willful suspension of disbelief.