The Memory Keeper’s Daughter opens with Dr. David Henry and his wife, Norah, about to have their first child. They encounter a freak snow storm in the middle of March and Norah delivers at David’s clinic instead of the hospital, with a nurse, who’s in love with David, there to assist him. This is 1964 and in those days they used to knock a mother out while she delivered. Norah first delivers a healthy baby boy, and then unexpectedly she delivers his twin sister. When David turns the baby over he realizes that she has Down Syndrome. In that instant, and with Norah passed out, he makes a rash decision and tells the nurse to take her to an institution. The nurse, Caroline, takes the baby to the institution, is horrified and refuses to institutionalize the girl named Phoebe. Instead she disappears and starts a new life in a new town and raises Phoebe as her own. David, trying to spare his wife the grief of having to raise a mentally disabled child, tells her that their baby girl died at birth. The book follows the two families for 25 years until the secret is resolved.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. While I thought it was beautifully written and no one can describe a scene in more vivid detail than Edwards, I just found it a bit depressing. None of the characters were very likable. The most likable was Caroline who fights for Phoebe’s right to a public school education and access to the resources that will make her an autonomous adult. The secret of Phoebe is a wedge that firmly implants itself into David and Norah’s marriage and also their relationship with their “living” child, Paul.
Reading it, however was a good exercise in thinking about family secrets. I was so frustrated with David for not sharing his life history with Norah. She had no idea the poverty he grew up and why he was so driven to succeed. His “protection” of Norah was actually not protection at all. She was never given a choice to know her daughter and instead lived in the grief of a lie for 25 years. He saw his own mother grieve for his sister when she died early from a heart condition and wanted to spare Norah that. But, it begged me to ask the question, why tell Norah a daughter was born at all? She was knocked out during the delivery and would have never known and therefore could have been spared from any grief at all, if that was his real intent. I was so frustrated with him throughout the book that I just wanted to shake him right through the pages.
For a book about secrets and lies it was a very honest look into what was acceptable to do to those with disabilities in the 1960s and the fall out that comes from those “acceptable” decisions. I thought it was exceptionally well-written, definitely a page turner since I couldn’t put it down, and would recommend it to anyone who isn’t prone to let the mood of a book take over their own.