Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

If you're planning on reading this book and don't want key plot points revealed, don't read this. I am going to start spoiling all over the place. You have been warned!

Okay, here's the story. It's 1964, and during a wintery night, accompanied only by a nurse named Caroline, David Henry delivers his twin children. The first is a boy named Paul, born strong and healthy. The second, an unexpected surprise, is a daughter named Phoebe. David needs look at Phoebe only once to see that she has Down Syndrome. Since it's 1964, David's wife, Norah, is not awake for either birth and doesn't know what's happening. David asks nurse Caroline to take Phoebe away to an institution. He tells Norah that their second child was stillborn. David's own sister was born with a heart defect, so he knows the heartbreak that can be caused by the slow death of a beloved child and believes that he is saving Norah from all of that.

This decision, of course, sets a huge chain of events in motion. Caroline takes Phoebe to the institution, but cannot leave her there. She has felt like she has been waiting for her life to start, and in that night, it does. She takes Phoebe away and raises her as her daughter. Norah is distraught at the loss of her daughter. The joy of having a new baby doesn't diminish that pain. She is confused by David's seeming unwillingness to mourn Phoebe. His secret drives a wall between them. Norah throws herself into her career (and a string of affairs), while David develops a passion for photography, photographing nature and parts of the body in harmony.

David believed he made his decision because it was best for everyone, but truly he did it because he thought it was best for him. He didn't want to repeat the tragedy of his sister's death. But the people around him were stronger than he realized. Caroline was a wonderful, patient, and loving mother to Phoebe. She fought for Phoebe to have the right to attend public school and to make her as independent as she could be. Phoebe wasn't the kind of person who could just be locked up in an institution; she was stronger than that, and so was Caroline. Norah's tenacity and success in her workplace was fueled, in part, by a feeling of emptyness. That void certainly could have been filled by the demands of caring for Phoebe. Paul felt a distance from his father, sensed the secrets between them, and was never as close to David as he should have been. David thought he was protecting those he loved, but he was really only protecting himself. In so doing, he utterly failed.

In the end, David dies unexpectedly, before he can share his secret with anybody. Caroline finds Norah and tells her what happened. As the book ends, Norah and Paul are navigating what it will mean to have Phoebe in their lives. Both of them learn a lot from Phoebe in just a short time. Norah learns that Phoebe doesn't need to be rescued and is happy with her life as it is. Paul is fascinated by Phoebe's approach to life. Phoebe lives in a world in which strange and unexpected things, like meeting your birth mother and twin, are the kinds of things that happen every day. She accepts them with a minimum of angst. Paul, following his sister's example, realizes that he loves her in an uncomplicated way.

The strengths of this book are its very concept and some outstanding characterization. It has two weaknesses. One is that it is a little too long and would benefit from a bit of editing. The other is that I was never clear as to why David told Norah they had a second child at all. She was unconscious during Phoebe's birth, so why tell her about it? Why not spare her all of the heartache? I was distracted by that question for quite a while until I had no choice but to willingly suspend disbelief. Nevertheless, this was a story that will stay with me.

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