Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2007 | Reviews

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

By Kathryn Howe

Snow falls firecely outside the window of David and Norah Henry's Lexington, Kentucky home in 1964 when Norah feels the first sharp pangs of labor.

David, an orthopedic surgeon, delivers the baby with the help of his nurse — Caroline Gill.

In the dim light of an examinating room, Norah delivers a perfect baby boy named Paul. After a brief joyful moment, she unexpectedly begins contractions again. For David, happiness soon turns to anguish as he immediately recognizes the signs of Down syndrome in twin daughter Phoebe.

That's when David makes a fateful decision — a choice that forever alters the course of several lives and drives the dramatic events in Kim Edwards' debut novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. David hands Phoebe to Caroline with instructions to place her in an institution. I'm trying to spare us all a terrible grief, he rationalizes. When Norah emerges from her drug-induced haze, David tells her their daughter was stillborn.

Tragically, this lie brings the Henry family the most sorrow. As the characters struggle through the years with the emptiness caused by Phoebe's absence, David fails to realize that relief from the pain can only be found in the healing power of the truth.

A New York Times best-seller, Edwards' novel shows how the trajectory of our lives can irreparably shift in a momentary flicker, and how dark secrets — however well-intended — can destroy the people we hold most dear.

In crisis, David makes a poor judgment about the true measure of happiness and the worth of a particular human life. For Caroline Gill, David's decision forces a critical choice of her own. Seizing what she views as an opportunity to finally give her life meaning and purpose, she steals away with Phoebe to make a new home in Pittsburgh.

Clearly tormented, David pursues a solitary life of detachment through the lens of his "memory keeper," a camera that Norah gives him for his birthday. The memory keeper gives David control over the images and memories he wants to preserve — in sharp contrast to real life, where he's powerless against the consquences of his actions.

Young Paul finds himself caught in the middle of his parents' crumbling marriage, while — ironically — the sister he never knew enjoys a full life. Despite constant struggles to gain Phoebe access to education and medical care, Caroline manages to carve out a joyful existence for herself and her daughter.

Edwards weaves her captivating tale in chapters that alternate between the Henry family and the experiences of Caroline and Phoebe. As much as it's a story about redemption and love, The Memory Keeper's Daughter also offers a commentary on a generation plagued by social stereotypes and stigma, a world just beginning to wake up to the potential of children with special needs.

In the end, when the characters' lives collide, it's clear that even David has learned this lesson. As Caroline says: "You missed a lot of heartache, sure. But David, you missed a lot of joy." The Memory Keeper's Daughter reminds us that we rarely have one without the other.