The Memory Keeper's Daughter
by Kim Edwards
Quickie Synopsis: When his wife goes into labor during a freak March snow storm, Dr. David Henry is forced to handle the delivery himself. The first baby is a fine, healthy boy; but the second infant, a twin girl delivered moments later, shows obvious signs of having Down's Syndrome. Dr. Henry makes a split-second decision to send the infant to an institution and tells his wife that the baby died. The nurse charged with the baby girl finds herself unable to leave her at the institution, and in a split-second decision of her own, decides to disappear to another city and raise the child on her own. The Memory Keeper's Daughter is the chronicle of these parallel families. Dr. Henry's son Paul is raised in a household filled with grief over the believed death of his sister and layers of deceit between his parents. His "lost" twin Phoebe thrives in the unconventional family that surrounds and loves her, and she grows into a happy, well-adjusted young woman.
Kim Edward's debut novel is born of those "what if?" questions that lurk at the back of every parents' mind: What if my child is born with a disability? What if my baby dies? What will I do then? In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, each character is forced to confront a different 'what if?" scenario: Dr. Henry gives away his child in an effort to spare his wife and himself greater suffering in the future; Norah, his wife, finds herself suffocated with grief from the death of a child; Caroline raises a child with Down's, constantly afraid of doing something 'wrong' or failing in her devotion. Each character represents the life of "what might have been" for each of the other characters had different decisions been made, but unlike Sartre's version of hell in No Exit, these characters gradually do find a kind of peace.
This is a technically ambitious novel, as is any novel that attempts to span entire lifetimes and catalogue each small triumph and failure of all its characters. As a result, the pace constantly oscillates between slow motion and giant leaps--I often found myself totally hooked into a particular situation only to turn the page and discover that we have leaped forward five years and the event I was so enthralled by is now ancient history for the characters in the book. This left me feeling disconnected from the characters and vaguely annoyed at Edwards for constantly wrenching my attention somewhere else. I got the feeling that Edwards didn't believe that her characters or the world she had created could stand on their own without having every detail meticulously plotted, right down to the last arch of an eyebrow and existential crisis. Instead of seeming to evolve naturally, the plot and character development felt more like an over planned road trip. I really think this novel could have benefited from a little less control on the part of the author and a little more trust in her own abilities as a writer.
And her abilities are many! I respect any author who can make us genuinely care about characters who we'd pass on the street without a second glance and who can take the story of those common characters and create a saga of personal identification and revelation. Edwards has all the earmarks of a masterful storyteller, and I look forward to seeing how she evolves.
Other good reads in the category of "ironic novels that chronicle the lives of middle-class families and their strained interpersonal relationships":
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Charles Baxter, Saul & Patsy
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Ali Smith, The Accidental
Monday, November 13, 2006
The Memory Keeper's Daughter