Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

I just finished a remarkable book by Kim Edwards, The Memory Keeper's Daughter.

Norah Henry goes into labor on a snowy Kentucky night, and, unable to reach the hospital, her husband David, an orthopedic surgeon, delivers her baby, with the help of his nurse, Caroline Gill. A boy is born, and then his twin sister appears. Paul is healthy; Phoebe has Down's syndrome.

David considers the baby girl. He thinks of his sister who died at age twelve; of his mother's subsequent grief; of the prognosis for this newborn daughter. Without discussion, he hands the baby to the nurse, gives her the address of an institution, and instructs her to take the baby there. He tells his wifeNorah that their daughter died during the birth, and that is that.

I knew this premise when I picked up the book, and yet I was so angry at this husband's arrogance, that I wasn't sure I wanted to finish. Twenty pages into the book, and I wondered how I could bear to continue reading.

From this heart-wrenching premise, Edwards spins a tale of two families. David struggles with guilt, Norah with loss, as they raise their son. And Caroline - who does not leave Phoebe at the institution - moves to Pittsburgh and raises Phoebe as her own daughter.

At one point, Edwards writes of Caroline
This was her life. Not the life she had once dreamed of, not a life her younger self would ever have imagined or desired, but the life she was living, with all its complexities. This was her life, built with care and attention, and it was good. (2005 hardback, pages 253-254)
Eventually, in their own time, the characters reconcile their guilt or sorrow, face their challenges, build their lives. The past cannot be changed. The process of letting it go and moving forward is not easy or straightforward. And yet, they manage. They manage to create new lives, and, while not perfect, those lives are satisfying and good.

I have to say, the book, while not perfect, was itself satisfying and good, and I'm glad to have read it.

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