Rating: Borrow: (aka: I’m not sure why this book is a bestseller.)
“The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” the current New York Time’s No. 1 paperback bestseller and the first novel by short-story writer Kim Edwards, begins with an unexpected birth during a rare snow storm in Lexington, Kentucky. Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver his wife’s baby, and is shocked to find that she is carrying twins. The first baby, a son, arrives in the world completely healthy. Then, surprisingly, a daughter follows, along with the immediate realization that she has Down’s syndrome. Struck with the fear of raising a sickly child, David decides that keeping the second baby isn’t an option. With his wife still unconscious, he hands his daughter to the attending nurse, Caroline Gill, and instructs her to leave the baby at a nearby institution. With one act, David changes his family’s future forever. Caroline is irreparably altered as well; too distressed to leave her in the dank institution, she takes the baby, Phoebe, home to be raised as her own.
Edwards does a good job of using the setting of the novel as a bigger symbol of what is going on in the characters’ lives. The novel begins in the peaceful (early) ’60s, with the seemingly idyllic marriage of David and Norah Asher and their hopeful venture into parenthood. The stormy night of the birth, however, marks a turning point from fairy tale to real life. Although early in the novel, this night becomes the most pivotal event in both David and Norah Henry’s lives. The rest of the book, which takes us through almost three turbulent decades, focuses on how that one decision shaped the structure of their lives, their marriage and the life of their son, Paul.
While we watch the lives of the Henry family, we are also given glimpses into the progress of Phoebe, who remains with Caroline. Although mentally challenged, Phoebe grows into an endearingly strong and unexpectedly wise adult. The stories of Paul’s upbringing and Phoebe’s growth are kept separate throughout the novel, only joined at brief points by infrequent letters sent from Caroline to David. Otherwise, they are kept completely apart.
Although mostly in the dark (only David and Caroline know what really happened with the twins), the characters’ lives revolve around the events of that stormy night. Norah, falsely told that her daughter had died at birth, wonders why her husband doesn’t do more to keep her baby’s memory alive. David, feeling guilty over about Phoebe, slowly detaches from his wife, letting their marriage grow around the huge boulder that is his secret. Paul, is also shaped by this dynamic, sensing the distance between his parents, and soon a rift develops between all three of them. These separations, difficult to watch, eventually end up being too much for them to repair.
Basically, this book wasn’t worth the $14. There are two different story lines all throughout the book, and I spent most of the middle two hundred pages waiting for them to be brought together in some clever way (really, it could have been done). Instead, Edwards waits until the last 25 pages for things to start being resolved (25 out of 400 pages; that’s only 6 percent of the book. Yeah.I know). And they do eventually work it out, but not well. Not in a believable way. Not in a way that makes you feel like the book has come to its well-deserved end (even though it was a well-anticipated end).
Harsh? Maybe, but don’t worry, all isn’t lost. Even though their finales aren’t believable, the characters’ stories are. The actions they take, the choices they make, and the palpable emotional journeys they travel make up histories that are well-constructed and extremely authentic. The reader comes to understand why they do some of the (otherwise seemingly crazy) things they do. We root for them, hoping, honestly wanting everything to work out. I think that’s part of the reason why I was so disappointed: I really liked these characters, and I wanted them to come to a believable amount of closure at the end. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
Don’t be disheartened, however. Like I said, for the most part, the story is moving, thoughtful and pretty enjoyable. There are even a few twists thrown in along the way to keep you from nodding off. I just wouldn’t recommend you all rush out and buy it (even though America apparently already has). But you could wait for it to go on sale, or borrow my copy. If you’re looking for something to read over a couple of weekends or during your copious downtime, it could still be worth your while.
Emilie Egger is an English sophomore and Mustang Daily book reviewer.