The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Kim Edwards, 2005
Penguin Group USA
On a winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry is forced by a blizzard to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy. Yet when his daughter is born, he sees immediately that she has Down's Syndrome. Rationalizing it as a need to protect Norah, his wife, he makes a split-second decision that will alter all of their lives forever. He asks his nurse to take the baby away to an institution and never to reveal the secret.
But Caroline, the nurse, cannot leave the infant. Instead, she disappears into another city to raise the child herself. So begins this beautifully told story that unfolds over a quarter of a century in which these two families, ignorant of each other, are yet bound by the fateful decision made that long-ago winter night.
A brilliantly crafted, stunning debut, The Memory Keeper's Daughter explores the way life takes unexpected turns, and how the mysterious ties that hold a family together help us survive the heartache that occurs when long-buried secrets burst into the open. (From the publisher.)
• Reared—Skaneateles, New York, USA
• Education—B.A., Colgate University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers'
Workshop; M.A., University of Iowa
• Awards—Nelson Algren Award, 1990; Pushcart Prize, 1995;
Whiting Writers' Award, 2002
• Currently—lives in Lexington, Kentucky
Kim Edwards is the author of the short story collection The Secrets of a Fire King, which was an alternate for the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award, and she has won both the Whiting Award and the Nelson Algren Award. A graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, she currently teaches writing at the University of Kentucky. (From the Hardcover edition.)
In the late ‘90s, Edwards was making a major splash on the literary scene. Her recently published short story collection would soon be pegged for a Whiting Award and the Nelson Algren Award, and would also be an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Around this charmed time, Edwards heard a story that would ultimately propel her toward a career as a bestselling novelist.
"A few months after my story collection, The Secrets of a Fire King, was published, one of the pastors of the Presbyterian church I'd recently joined said she had a story to give me," she explained in an interview on the Penguin Group USA web site. "It was just a few sentences, about a man who'd discovered late in life that his brother had been born with Down syndrome, placed in an institution at birth, and kept a secret from his family, even from his own mother, all his life. He'd died in that institution, unknown. I remember being struck by the story even as she told it, and thinking right away that it really would make a good novel. It was the secret at the center of the family that intrigued me. Still, in the very next heartbeat, I thought: Of course, I'll never write that book."
Despite Edwards's quick dismissal of the idea, it would not unhand her. She let several years slip by without going to work on the story, but she never forgot it. When she was invited to run a writing workshop for mentally disabled adults, the experience affected Edwards so profoundly that she started mulling over the pastor's story more seriously. It would be another year before Edwards actually began working on The Memory Keeper's Daughter, but once she did, she found that it came quickly and surprisingly well-developed.
In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, a man named David discovers that his newly born son is in fine health, but the child's twin sister is stricken with Down Syndrome. So, the distraught father, who harbors painful memories of his own sister's chronic illness, makes a quick but incredibly difficult decision: he asks the attending nurse to take his daughter to an institution where she might receive better care. Although he tells his wife that the child was stillborn, David's decision goes on to affect the lives of himself and his wife for the following 25 years.
Haunting, dramatic, and moving, The Memory Keeper's Daughter went on to become a big seller and a critical favorite. The Library Journal hailed it as "an enthralling page-turner" and Kirkus Reviews declared that Edwards "excels at celebrating a quiet wholesomeness..."
Now that Edwards has broken into novel-writing in a big way, she is hard at work on her follow up to her smash debut. "I have begun a new novel, called The Dream Master," she says. "It's set in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York where I grew up, which is stunningly beautiful, and which remains in some real sense the landscape of my imagination. Like The Memory Keeper's Daughter, this new novel turns on the idea of a secret—that seems to be my preoccupation as a writer—though in this case the event occurred in the past and is a secret from the reader as well as from the characters, so structurally, and in its thematic concerns, the next book is an entirely new discovery." (From Barnes and Noble.)
From a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:
• Although Edwards had been interested in writing ever since she was a little girl, she didn't actually write her first story "Cords" until she was in a fiction workshop while attending Colgate University.
• Among the many fans that Edwards has won with The Memory Keeper's Daughter is beloved novelist Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees), who said of Edwards's first novel, "I loved this riveting story with its intricate characters and beautiful language."
Her own words:
• My first job was in a nursing home—a terrible place in retrospect. It was in an old house, and the residents were so lonely. People rarely visited them. I only stayed there a couple of months, but it made a strong impression on me. Just before I left I went to get one woman for dinner, and discovered that she had died—a powerful experience when you're 17.
• Though my stories aren't autobiographical, I do sometimes use things from my life. ‘The Way It Felt to be Falling,' a story from my collection The Secrets of a Fire King, uses sky-diving as a metaphor. Like my character, I did jump out of the first plane I ever flew in. It was an amazing experience, but I've never had the urge to do it again.
• One of my greatest times of inspiration is when I'm traveling or living in a new country-there's a tremendous freedom that comes from being unfettered by your own, familiar culture, and by seeing the world from a different point of view.
• I love to swim, and I love being near water.
• When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is what she said:
Well, there are so many. It's hard to choose. But I think I'd have to go with a very early influence, which was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I read this book several times when I was quite young, and I was particularly drawn to the character of Jo, who of course was the writer, the story-teller. I'm sure it also was important to me, though perhaps not consciously so, that the novel was written by a woman. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
Dark secrets that lie deep in the heart always find their way to the surface. That's the premise of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, a painful but beautiful book about how lies corrode the human soul.
A LitLovers LitPick (Nov. '06)
Edwards's assured but schematic debut novel (after her collection, The Secrets of a Fire King) hinges on the birth of fraternal twins, a healthy boy and a girl with Down syndrome, resulting in the father's disavowal of his newborn daughter. A snowstorm immobilizes Lexington, Ky., in 1964, and when young Norah Henry goes into labor, her husband, orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Henry, must deliver their babies himself, aided only by a nurse. Seeing his daughter's handicap, he instructs the nurse, Caroline Gill, to take her to a home and later tells Norah, who was drugged during labor, that their son Paul's twin died at birth. Instead of institutionalizing Phoebe, Caroline absconds with her to Pittsburgh. David's deception becomes the defining moment of the main characters' lives, and Phoebe's absence corrodes her birth family's core over the course of the next 25 years. David's undetected lie warps his marriage; he grapples with guilt; Norah mourns her lost child; and Paul not only deals with his parents' icy relationship but with his own yearnings for his sister as well. Though the impact of Phoebe's loss makes sense, Edwards's redundant handling of the trope robs it of credibility. This neatly structured story is a little too moist with compassion.
This is a haunting, tragic, and distressing family tale, an enthralling page-turner primarily because it centers on an abysmal act by one individual that affects everyone for whom he cares. David Henry leads the perfect life; he's an orthopedic surgeon married to a wonderful, beautiful woman. It is 1964, and there's a terrible snowstorm in Lexington, KY, when his wife goes into labor. The bad weather keeps Norah's ob/gyn from making it to the hospital, so her husband, along with his nurse, Caroline Gill, decides to deliver the baby in his clinic. Under sedation, Norah gives birth to a healthy boy. As David is thrilled by the birth of his son, Norah starts to have more contractions. He quickly sedates her again, and she gives birth to a girl with Down syndrome. Wanting to protect Norah and feeling she would not be able to cope with a mentally challenged child, David gives the baby to Caroline and asks her to place her in an institution and never reveal their secret. The novel, read by Martha Plimpton, is told through different characters' points of view, moving from one person's thoughts to another, always keeping the secret at the center of the story. The Memory Keeper's Daughter, while ultimately hopeful, tells much of the dark side of human understanding and relationships. Recommended. —Carol Stern, Glen Cove P.L., NY
One well-intentioned lie causes deep fissures in a family. David Henry had a hard childhood in West Virginia. His family was dirt poor and his sister June, always sickly, died of a heart defect at 12. Vowing to do good, David left home to become an orthopedic surgeon in Lexington, Ky. He's 33 when he meets Norah Asher in a department store. The year is 1964, and it's love at first sight. David delivers his and Norah's own twins-a boy (Paul) who's fine, and a girl (Phoebe) who is damaged with Down's syndrome. Hoping to spare her the pain he underwent with his sister, David tells Norah that the girl is stillborn and instructs his nurse, Caroline, to deliver the infant to an institution. Secretly in love with David, Caroline, who is shocked by his subterfuge and shocked again by the grim shelter, decides to move away and raise Phoebe on her own. Over the next 25 years, parallel stories unfold. In Lexington, the loss of the supposedly dead baby corrodes David and Norah's marriage. Neither they nor son Paul can be warmed by life together, each keeping busy with pet projects. In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, Caroline lands on her feet, securing a good job and a good man, and raising Phoebe with a fierce devotion. Unfortunately, after its fast and sure-footed start, the story sags: Edwards insists heavy-handedly on the consequences of David's lie but fails to deliver any true catharsis, and when David does confess, it's not to Norah. Visiting his childhood home, he is surprised by a squatter, a pregnant runaway of 16 who ties him up—and his story tumbles out. It's a bold scene, rekindling the excitement of the start yet remaining a solitary flash in a humdrum progression. When the family finally learns the truth, the impact is minimal. First-novelist Edwards (stories: The Secrets of a Fire King, 1997) excels at celebrating a quiet wholesomeness but stumbles over her storyline.
1. When David hands his baby girl over to Caroline and tells Norah that she has died, what was your immediate emotional reaction? At this early point, did you understand David’s motivations? Did your understanding grow as the novel progressed?
2. David describes feeling like “an aberration” within his own family (p. 7) and describes himself as feeling like “an imposter” in his professional life as a doctor (p. 8). Discuss David’s psyche, his history, and what led him to make that fateful decision on the night of his children’s birth.
3. When David instructs Caroline to take Phoebe to the institution, Caroline could have flatly refused or she could have gone to the authorities. Why doesn’t she? Was she right to do what she did and raise Phoebe as her own? Was Caroline morally obligated to tell Norah the truth right from the beginning? Or was her moral obligation simply to take care of Phoebe at whatever cost? Why does she come to Norah after David’s death?
4. Though David wanted no part of her, Phoebe goes on to lead a full life, bringing much joy to Caroline and Al. Her story calls into question how we determine what kind of life is worth living. How would you define such a life? In contrast to Phoebe’s, how would you describe the quality of Paul’s life as he grew up?
5. Throughout the novel, the characters often describe themselves as feeling as if they are watching their own lives from the outside. For instance, David describes the moment when his wife is going into labor and says “he felt strangely as if he himself were suspended in the room...watching them both from above” (p. 10). What do you think Edwards is trying to convey here? Have you ever experienced similar feelings in your own life?
6. There is an obvious connection between David and Caroline, most aptly captured by a particular moment described through David’s point of view: “Their eyes met, and it seemed to the doctor that he knew her—that they knew each other—in some profound and certain way” (p. 12). What is the significance of this moment for each of them? How would you describe the connection between them? Why do you think David married Norah and not Caroline?
7. After Norah has successfully destroyed the wasps’ nest, Edwards writes that there was something happening in Norah’s life, “an explosion, some way in which life could never be the same” (p. 139). What does she mean, and what is the significance of Norah’s “fight” with these wasps?
8. When David meets Rosemary (p. 267) it turns out to be a cathartic experience for him. What is it about her that enables David to finally speak the truth? Why does he feel compelled to take care of her?
9. The secret that David keeps is enormous and ultimately terribly destructive to himself and his family. Can you imagine a circumstance when it might be the right choice to shield those closest to you from the truth?
10. What do you think Norah’s reaction would have been if David had been honest with her from the beginning? How might Norah have responded to the news that she had a daughter with Down syndrome? How might each of their lives have been different if David had not handed Phoebe to Caroline that fateful day?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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