I understand that Kim Edwards got the idea for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter from a true story told to her by her pastor. I can see why a novelist might think the story makes good fodder for a novel. I was not so sure how I would feel about reading it, though.
The blurb makes very clear what the novel is about. On a snowy Kentucky night in 1964, Dr. David Henry must deliver his children when the doctor he engaged is unable to reach the clinic. His wife has twins. The first born is a boy, and he is perfect. His twin is a girl, and the doctor and his nurse, Caroline Gill, immediately recognize the signs of Down’s syndrome. At that point, Henry makes a fateful decision. He asks his nurse to deliver his daughter to a home for the mentally deficient. When his wife awakens, he tells her the girl died.
Henry explains his actions to himself as an attempt to protect his family. He too had a Down’s syndrome sister, and he remembers the pain her early death caused him and his mother. But these memories are muddied by the feelings of resentment he had as a boy for the amount of attention that went to his sister.
Caroline Gill is shocked to the core by Dr. Henry’s decision, even though she is in love with him. She does what she is told until she gets a look at the facility. Then she turns around and takes the baby home. She waits for Henry to do the right thing, but when she sees a memorial notice for the little girl in the paper, she takes the baby and leaves town.
This lie that David Henry told continues to haunt his marriage, for it puts a barrier between himself and his wife and child. He comes to feel he made a bitter mistake, but cannot find a way to correct it. He puts his energies into his work and his hobby of photography instead of his family.
This novel reminded me of the attempts of some of the modernists to show ordinary people with all their flaws. Even Caroline, the most blameless of all the characters involved in the original act, leaves town after Henry asks her to do nothing without telling him first. Later, when he has an opportunity to meet his daughter, Caroline panics and leaves.
Norah Henry, who knows nothing of the original act, still handles her marriage poorly. I don’t think I’m being too judgmental when I say that everything is not all David Henry’s fault.
I feel that the novel becomes too diffuse somehow. I don’t require novels to wrap everything neatly up—often they’re more interesting if they do not and I give this book credit for not trying to—but I found the ending especially frustrating. I also did not see much point in bringing in the character of Rosemary. She is simply a convenience to cause a break.
All in all, I felt my initial hesitations about this book were justified. Despite the idea being based on a true story, the novel begins in 1964, not 1934, and Henry is a doctor, not the impoverished farmer his father was. So, there is no other way I can view his behavior except as unconscionable. I did not read this novel at the same time as My Father’s Eyes, which is in some ways a nonfiction counterpart to this book, but the similarities and differences are interesting to consider.