The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

I finished The Memory Keeper’s Daughter early last week, but I wanted to wait until after my book discussion to talk about it, because sometimes the book discussions make me change my mind about a book (hello, The Secret Life of Bees, which I liked much better after talking about it). I had been avoiding this book for a while, to be honest. I remember when it came in the first time, and I thought the cover was so interesting, and I read the premise and thought, “Not for me.” I’m not sure why, exactly – I like modern fiction. It just seemed a little sad. (And I can deal with sad stuff, but the premise seems almost gratuitously sad. More on the premise in a minute.)

Speaking of modern fiction – a few weeks ago, one of my coworkers was processing a book about writing chick lit, and she said, “You should look at this, since you read so much of that chick lit stuff – maybe you could write a book like that.” And that was very nice of her, but the bad Curtis Sittenfeld in me was actually kind of offended. In theory, I say, “People should read what makes them happy,” but in reality, I don’t think of myself as a woman who reads a whole lot of chick lit, because (and I hesitate to say this) I like stuff with a little more . . . meat to it. I read some, but I don’t have the patience for a whole lot of it, because I don’t feel like I have a lot in common with the kinds of women who are (often/usually) protagonists in chick lit. And so I was unreasonably offended by this. And I know I shouldn’t have been, because I truly don’t think less of my friends who read a lot of it. I just want to be thought of as a woman who has slightly more literary tastes. Whether that is true or not is up for debate.

I suppose it also depends on how broadly you define chick lit – my coworker may be thinking of it as “books written for women,” which I do read. A lot. I have been told the word for that is “chiction.”

Another coworker, processing a fairly large order of paperback chick lit, said, “I sure will be glad when this chick lit phase is over.” And what did I do? I defended chick lit. I said things like, “There have always been books written by and for women in their 20s about the things that concern them – some people think of Jane Austen as the grandmother of chick lit.” I convinced them that chick lit is not a fad. I explained that (some of it, at least) has merit, just as any genre fiction does. So it’s easy to see why they think it’s a passion of mine.

Anyway, now that I have revealed my gross disgusting snobbery, I guess I should actually talk about the book at hand. Let’s start with the premise. On a snowy night in 1964, an orthopedic surgeon named David is forced to deliver his own baby, as his wife Norah is in labor and they can’t get to the hospital. They do get to David’s own clinic, though, as does a nurse named Caroline. Norah delivers a beautiful baby boy named Paul and then, unexpectedly, another baby, a girl. Norah is sedated as David makes the discovery – his daughter, Phoebe, has Down syndrome.

In an instant that changes the rest of his life, David makes a decision – fueled by memories of his own sickly sister and how her death destroyed his family and his childhood, he asks Caroline to take the baby to an institution and to leave her there. When Norah regains consciousness, he tells her that the baby died.

Caroline, though, can’t leave the baby in that awful place, and so she keeps Phoebe for herself. And so she and Phoebe leave town and start over, start a new life together.

Yesterday, one of the women said that it was a beautiful book, just not her thing. And that, I think, is how I feel. Kim Edwards told the story well, and it was an interesting story, but . . . my instinct was right. Not for me. Some of the ladies mentioned yesterday having a hard time with it because it was so cerebral, so in the head, but I think I like that kind of thing, generally. I certainly read a fair amount of it, and I like character-driven books in general. I think my main complaint was that the characters themselves just seemed to fall deeper and deeper into despair and hopelessness because of the terrible thing that David did. They never seemed to be getting anywhere. And that was probably true to life and certainly understandable, but I do like to read books that are a little bit more about redemption.

Of course, that sentence right there is me exposing my tendency to want things wrapped up neatly. I don’t have to have all the loose ends tied up, but I want to believe in a world where lives can be redeemed, where telling the truth sets people free. And those are good things to believe in. But it’s not always what real life looks like.

Here is where I am going to talk a little bit about the ending, so if you haven’t read it, proceed with caution (or not at all).

On the back, Jodi Picoult is quoted as calling this a novel of regret and redemption. We discussed yesterday whether we agreed that it’s a novel of redemption. My first instinct is to say, no, that it’s not. But then, the more I think about it, the more I feel that Jodi Picoult is right. Caroline was able to get over David because of what happened, she was able to create a life for herself. Phoebe had a better, more loving childhood than she would have had with David. So his actions were redeemed in those ways, even though I think it destroyed his relationship with his wife and his son. Even there, though, there is a bit of redemption – it’s too late for Norah to have the relationship she wants with the daughter she never knew she had, but Paul can embrace his sister and redeem some of the residual pain of David’s childhood.

Except, of course, that David isn’t around to see it.

I often want life to be a little bit neater than this book, but it’s a realistic picture of people who are messy and make bad decisions and push each other away and don’t communicate . . . how all that ruined their lives and how, finally, when they find the freedom of the truth, they are learning to rebuild. I wish the story could have been different, but I’m not sure it would have been believable any other way.

(That doesn’t mean I don’t wish that David had finally found the courage to come clean.)

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