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.
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