Click here to read reviewer Janelle Martin's take on The Memory Keeper's Daughter.
“Photography is all about secrets,” David said […] The year is 1964. David Henry is a happily married orthopedic surgeon. When his wife, Norah, goes into labor in the middle of a snowstorm, David realizes that the birth will have to take place in his own office instead of at the hospital as planned. Unbeknownst to the couple, Norah is carrying twins, a boy and a girl. When David delivers the second baby, he is hypnotized by the “unmistakable features, the eyes turned up as if with laughter, the epicanthal fold across their lids, the flattened nose” (16), “the gap between her big toes and the others, […] Brushfield spots, as tiny and distinct as flecks of snow in the irises” (17).
“The secrets we all have and will never tell.” (201)
David, unable to bear the idea of causing his wife the pain that he knows comes with a Down’s syndrome child, asks his nurse Caroline to bring the girl to a home and then tells Norah that the baby died. After seeing the conditions at the “home for the feebleminded,” Caroline cannot bear to leave the baby there. She leaves town determined to raise the child on her own.
So the twins begin their lives, separated at birth. So also begins a quarter century of secret keeping and hidden loss. Phoebe is raised lovingly by Caroline, who must struggle against societal prejudices in order to give Phoebe the same opportunities as other children, while Paul grows up in a household filled with unexplained tension, ever touched by the shadow of the sister he never knew.
A powerful novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is both an exploration of grief and loss and a meditation on the power of love. Most importantly, though, it is a study of humanity.
One of the author’s gifts, it seems, is in characterization. The parental figures in the novel, in particular, are very sympathetic. While reading the novel, these characters are as real to the reader as his next-door neighbors.
The novel’s title refers to the present Norah gives David for their anniversary, a camera called “the Memory Keeper.” More than a camera, her gift is a hobby intended to assuage David’s workaholism, the most visible sign of the problems in his marriage. Photography, however, becomes an obsession for David:
He saw he’d been caught, frozen for all these years in that moment when he handed Caroline his daughter. His life turned around that single action: a newborn child in his arms—and then he reached out to give her away. It was as if he’d taken pictures all these years since to try and give another moment similar substance, equal weight. He’d wanted to try and still the rushing world, the flow of events, but of course that had been impossible. (258)
Photography also becomes an overriding and multifaceted theme in the novel. Edwards uses the language and act of photography as well as photographic imagery to illuminate many aspects of her ambitious first novel.
Despite being a profoundly moving novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter has a few obvious flaws. The first lies in the frequent reminders of the pivotal moment. The second is that both Norah and David at one point or another do things that seem completely out of character. The third, somewhat-less-obvious flaw appears in novel's middle section. In order to cover the twenty-five year timespan of her intended story, the author begins to gloss over things. Years in the lives of her characters are summed up in only a few big ticket events. This is deeply unsatisfying for the reader, because it is precisely in the small, quiet moments of everyday life shown in the beginning and end of the book that Edwards is able to truly illuminate her characters and their story.
Although The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is her first novel, Edwards has already had much literary success. Her short story collection, The Secrets of a Fire King was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award. She is also the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Whiting Award, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, and the Nelson Algren Award. Edwards teaches writing at the University of Kentucky.
Sure to engender much discussion, The Memory Keeper's Daughter would be a perfect selection for a book club.