The Memory Keeper's Daughter
by Kim Edwards

Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 0143037145.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 04/16/2007

Fiction: Literary

In The Memory Keeper's Daughter all the finely honed characters try to be the best they can be. There are no villains, even as there are no shining paragons. They are human. The scene begins with a young doctor beginning his practice in Lexington Kentucky falling in love with a beautiful young woman whom he spots in a department store. He meets her, courts her, and a delicious love becomes a reality as they marry. Just another romance? Not this time.

A late spring snow falls in March, 1964. "It was the sort of storm that rarely happened in Lexington, and the steady white flakes, the silence, filled him with a sense of excitement and peace. It was a moment when all the disparate shards of his life seemed to knit themselves together." Then, that night, his wife goes into labor and they drive to the hospital in the snow, meeting the nurse, Caroline Gill, but not the obstetrician because he has had an accident because of the snow. He delivers his son, and then, a second child, a daughter whose arrival is a total surprise. When he looks down upon her for the first time, he recognizes the symptoms of Downs Syndrome and moves with her and Nurse Gill to the next room.

Thus begins a lovely, gripping tale of five lives: the nurse, Carolyn Gill who takes Phoebe as her own, Phoebe, Dr. David Henry, Norah Henry and their son, Paul. Both Carolyn and David act in a way which they consider their only choice but it is David Henry who will suffer his whole life because of his choice. Phoebe and Paul grow up apart from and unknown to each other, Phoebe with unconditional love and Paul within the shadow of his father's lie to Norah that Phoebe died at birth. It is the Henry family which is scared, David by guilt, Norah by grief and Paul by the underlying tensions. Physicians at that time recommended that challenged children be institutionalized not realizing what harm the separation could do to families.

David immerses himself in his work and his hobby of photography and removes himself emotionally from his family. Years later, he asks that his teen-age son give up his desire to become a musician and, instead, give back to the world. And Paul replies, "I love music. When I play I feel like I'm doing that—giving something back Music is like you touch the pulse of the world. Music is always happening, and sometimes you get to touch it for a while, and when you do you know that everything's connected to everything else."

Years later when Paul and Phoebe are re-united at their father's grave, she is sad for Paul, but has no knowledge of, no feeling for her birth father. She, too, has the gift of music and she sings a hymn for Paul. "Her voice, high and clear, moved through the leaves through the sunlight. It splashed onto the gravel, the grass. He imagined the notes falling into the air line stones into water, rippling the invisible surface of the world. Waves of sound, waves of light: his father had tried to pin everything down, but the world was fluid and could not be contained."

Edwards write with a lyrical pen. She has created people with deep feelings and human flaws. In the process, she shares with the reader immense sympathy for those with handicaps, and we become more expansive because of her gift.

(See another review of this book, here)

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