I first heard about The Memory Keeper’s Daughter through the Diane Rehm Show, and since then it’s been making the book club rounds, including being chosen as January’s selection over at The Written Word. It was also the fourth book I chose to read for the Winter Reading Challenge.
The story opens on a wintry night in Kentucky, during an usually fierce snowstorm. David Henry is forced to deliver his wife Norah at his clinic when she unexpectedly goes into labor, with his nurse, Caroline, as the only other person in attendance. Norah delivers their son, Paul, a healthy baby boy. Then, David realizes his wife is delivering another child, a daughter. But immediately upon her birth, the doctor and nurse realize something is wrong – his baby daughter has Down’s syndrome. In a split second decision, David instructs Caroline to take the baby away to an institution. Norah, who has been unconscious through most of both births, is told that the girl died. Upon seeing where she’s been ordered to take the infant, Caroline makes her own fateful decision, to take the child and raise her as her own. Thus begins an odyssey of pain, grief, sorrow and loss that will haunt all involved for years to come.
My own mother had a child before I was born, a girl that died just a few days after she was born. In reading Norah’s descent into depression and grief, I wonder how my mother dealt with the pain of losing a child, if she ever felt the engulfing despair that clung to Norah. Not having had the experience myself, it seems to me that Edwards showed that losing a child, at any point, is a pain that never fully leaves, and grieving for that loss is as valid whether the child is a part of the parent’s life for years, or never given the chance to live.
I found Norah and David to be the most compelling characters, too wrapped up in their own emotions to bridge the ever-expanding gap between them. In lesser hands, this story could have been maudlin or flatly depressing, but I felt Edwards walked that tightrope with aplomb, recognizing the flawed humanity within each character, giving the reader enough angst without going overboard.