The Memory Keeper's Daughter By Kim Edwards
A Literary Review

United States of America By: Jase Luttrell on 9 March 2010
Category: Books > Reviews Comments View Comments

The Memory Keeper's Daughter focuses on some rather annoying characters and has some pretty poor editing. However it is a compelling narrative of lies, deception, and intense emotion you won't forget but you'll have to read the review to decide if you want Kim Edwards' novel - and its problems - permanently lodged in your memory.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter By Kim EdwardsThe Memory Keeper's Daughter begins with a story of conflict and heightened emotion: Dr David Henry is forced to deliver his own twins during an unexpected blizzard in 1964. His first child is a boy named Paul and is perfectly healthy but the second, a daughter named Phoebe, has Down's Syndrome. The doctor makes a very sudden and rash decision that impacts numerous lives forever: he tells his wife Norah the baby died during childbirth and he gives the girl to the nurse, named Caroline Gill, with the instructions that she take the child to "an institution for retarded children" (it is 1964, and that type of insensitive language was unfortunately commonplace). When Caroline arrives at the orphanage, she cannot leave the young child, so she takes her home. A short while after Caroline sees a memorial service listing in the newspaper and this is how she learns that David lied to his wife. When David asks Caroline about taking Phoebe away he learns that she has kept the child. Caroline is deeply disturbed to know of his lie so she decides to quit her job, move away, and begin a new life. She periodically writes letters to David telling him of her life with Phoebe but never reveals her address to him. Instantly, you are drawn to Caroline because of her compassion and selflessness, while you feel deep sympathy for Norah, and revulsion for David. The first 120 pages of the book span six years, and build on this scenario in alternating chapters, explaining how each character is attempting to deal with the repercussions of the fateful night in 1964. The first fourth of the book is so emotional and true to reality it is difficult to put the book down.

Unfortunately, the intrigue and conflict of the story falters for the next 200 pages, as Norah develops a minor relationship with alcoholism and with other men as a means to cope with the growing distance between her and her husband, while (excessively) mourning the "death" of her daughter for 20 years. In short, you grow weary reading about Norah because every other paragraph relates to how everything in her life is miserable because of this situation. Meanwhile, David becomes a mopey character who is spineless and cannot reveal his secret to his wife, even though you know it would help her. The trouble with this storyline is that David has no reason not to reveal his secret, except that "he can't", and this mantra is repeated ad nauseum to the point that you grow tired of reading chapters relating to him as well, skimming the paragraphs for something more interesting and compelling. Author Kim Edwards attempts to give some depth to his character by telling a story of him growing up in poverty with a sick sister but this falls flat because of the overall sense of revulsion the reader feels for him. No back story or rationalisation is capable of justifying his egregious act of cruelty.

The only reason to keep reading the book is because of the chapters relating to Phoebe and Caroline, who live their lives in Pittsburgh. Caroline finds a job working as a caregiver for a family, while involving herself in the Upside Down Society, an organisation that fights for equal rights for individuals with Down's Syndrome. These chapters are not overly political or dripping with history relating to the Disability Right's Movement but provide even more characterisation for Caroline as an incredible woman. We learn that she has fallen in love with a loving, caring man; that Phoebe is growing up without any severe health complications; and that all is well in their lives, except for the letters David tirelessly sends asking to meet Phoebe to numerous PO boxes in a number of areas that Caroline has set up. Caroline's story is fascinating and informative, as Kim Edwards effortlessly provides you with a sense of what it must be like to care for someone with Down's Syndrome.

Edwards' overall writing style is very fluid, full of beautiful descriptions, florid language, and a mesmerising premise. Unfortunately, much of the book is absolutely saturated with mourning and melancholy and there is not enough balance of emotion. The dialogue is sometimes forced (except in chapters concerning Caroline and Phoebe), but Phoebe's dialogue and characterisation is absolutely spot on. Edwards' ability to build a story is often awkward and seemingly capricious: her characters do some very stupid, inexplicable things. As one example, Norah takes down a wasp's nest because Paul is allergic. In an effort to destroy the creatures, she takes a vacuum to suck them all up, then jams the tube into the exhaust pipe of her car, and turns her car on so that the exhaust enters the vacuum bag and kills the wasps. Really? Who thinks of this? Another example is Paul, who discovers that his dream career will be set in motion, and he finally receives the support of his father he longed for. His response to this moment of joy: he runs away, steals the neighbour's car, and ends up in a police station in Ohio two days later. Finally, David disappears from his family, stricken with grief, and goes to his childhood home, where it's obvious a squatter has taken residence. So, he falls asleep on their bed, only to wake up bound to the bed by a 16-year-old pregnant girl. These moments are so incredibly outrageous and distracting; it's hard not to wonder what the hell Edwards was thinking when she decided to weave these moments into the story.

As one final complaint, there are so many editing mistakes it is almost nerve wracking. The editors of this book seemingly were very good at using Spell Check but apparently do not know that it is not very good at checking everything. I found approximately one mistake every chapter (and remember, I was skimming quite a few chapters). Often these mistakes are reduplications of words, or using the wrong word, as in "she drove to the crash sight". The moments at which I nearly threw the book across the room was when I would find mistakes that looked as though a sentence had been revised but the final sentence still contained grammatical remnants of the original construction. This was, obviously, infuriating.

With all of these complaints, I want it known that I found this book to be equal parts frustrating and hypnotic. The terrible editing errors, weak characterisations, and unintentional whimsical antics of three of the characters were horribly distracting and truly unforgivable. I felt like I was running a marathon with broken legs while I suffered through the stumbling blocks of poor editing and clunky storylines. However, the conflict between the characters, the build-up of emotions, and the 30 years of the story provide you with a sense of inclusion in the characters' lives. It's true, I spent 250-some pages feeling absolutely frustrated, the desire to toss the book and move on to other literary adventures growing, but something about the story and writing style pulled me in (though definitely not the characters I couldn't stand, such as David and Norah), and forced me to complete the book. The final 50 pages are beautiful, the storylines intertwine magically, and the conflict wraps itself into a fluid conclusion. You end the book feeling sated, delighted to have your frustrations dissolve, and curious to know what is in store for the (few interesting and well-written) characters, but especially the beautiful, courageous, and compassionate Phoebe, the daughter of the memory keeper David Henry. OpinionShare/Bookmark
Rating: 5/10

Key Facts (Review Copy)
Title: The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Author: Kim Edwards
ISBN/EAN: 9780670034169 (Hardcover); 9780141030142 (Paperback)
Publisher: The Viking Press, an imprint of Penguin Group USA
Edition: First
Year: 2005
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 401
Dimensions: 155x241x34mm
Genre/Keywords: drama, fiction

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