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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

I picked up a book last night called The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards - it was terrible, not because it was bad, but because it was so good: I couldn't put it down until I finished the final pages at 3 in the morning. Argh! Not a good thing, when your alarm goes off at 5:50 AM.

What fascinates me about this book is what it has to say about "secrets." Here's the basic premise (hopefully without giving too much away) - a doctor is forced to deliver his wife's child in the middle of a raging snowstorm. The only complication is that she's actually carrying twins - the first, a healthy beautiful baby boy; the second, a Downs Syndrome baby girl. The year is 1964, when such children are regularly institutionalized - after all, babies like this rarely survive long anyway, and even if they do, their quality of life is marginal at best.

As a doctor, David Henry knows his daughters prognosis full well, and rather than force his young wife Norah to deal with such a tragedy, he makes a snap decision to try and protect her from a lifetime of unspeakable grief. His solution: hand the "defective" daughter to his nurse to deliver to an institution, while he informs his wife of the tragedy - she delivered twins, but her daughter did not survive childbirth. She is dead. Gone.

With that simple little secret, the future is inescapably changed, his doom is sealed - unbeknownst to anyone, the nurse flees into hiding to raise the child as her own.

The rest of the book is riveting, because we get to see firsthand the effects of his fall - on his relationship with his wife, his son, and eventually everyone else around him. It's a tragic book (I'm not sure I could read it again), because it's not Hollywood - it's brutally true to the lives that many of us have experienced ourselves.

The one ray of hope comes unexpectedly, as David Henry confesses everything - no more secrets - to a young woman with child.
In the silence David started talking again, trying to explain at first about the snow and the shock and the scalpel flashing in the harsh light. How he has stood outside himself and watched himself moving in the world. How he had woken up every morning of his life for eithteen years thinking maybe today, maybe this was the day he would put things right. But Phoebe was gone and he couldn't find her, so how could he possibly tell Norah?

The secret had worked its way through their marriage, an insidious vine, twisting; she drank too much, and then she began having affairs, that sleazy realtor at the beach, and then the others; he's tried not to notice, to forgive her, for he knew that in some real sense the fault was his. Photo after photo, as if he could stop time or make an image powerful enough to obscure the moment when he had turned and handed his daughter to Caroline Gill. ...

He had handed his daughter to Caroline Gill and that act had led him here, years later, to this girl in motion of her own, this girl who had decided yes, a brief moment of release in the back of a car or in the room of a silent house, this girl who had stood up later, adjusting her clothes, with no knowledge of how that moment was already shaping her life.

She cut [paper] and listened. Her silence made him free. He talked like a river, like a storm, words rushing through the old house with a force and life he could not stop. At some point he began to weep again, and he could not stop that either. Rosemary made no comment whatsoever. He talked until the words slowed, ebbed, finally ceased.

Silence welled. She did not speak. ...

"All right," she said [at last]. "You're free."
And this single act of honesty produces the deepest intimacy he has ever experienced - it's not sexual, but relational - with a human being who knows the very worst about him and yet who does not reject him for it.
He'd poured out his story to her in such a rush, the first and last time he had ever told it, and she had listened without judging him. There was freedom in that; David could be completely himself with Rosemary, who had listened to what he'd done without rejection him and without telling anyone, either....
He confesses. She accepts him as he his. And he finally finds freedom.

What if the church could be like this - a place where you could lay all your garbage on the table, all the deepest darkest secrets that you've never told anyone, and still find acceptance, forgiveness, love. There is something deeply freeing about honesty and real love - it never minimizes the wrongs we have done; it embraces us in spite of them; and it refuses to leave us in our place of desparate isolation.

I think the church must be like this, because God is like this. And this is the kind of church we desire to be, because this is the only way to experience the freedom of the gospel.


At 2:03 PM, March 02, 2007, Blogger Rachel said...

I found the book to be painful as well--so much so that I found it almost hard to believe that he would carry the secret for so long, but I know people do it. I was just talking to someone recently who kept her eating disorder a secret for years.

I also liked the descriptions of what the characters used to fill the void--alcohol, sex, even art--but everything came up short.

Another thing tangential here, but that I thought was interesting was that everyone shudders at the thought of institutionalizing persons with Down's Syndrome now (rightly so, obviously). Even the author talks about those atrocities in the Q%A at the back of the book. However, most prenatal testing done these days centers around finding Down's and other chromosomal abnormalities and many people think nothing of aborting the babies altogether. That would be a tough secret to keep too.

At 6:16 PM, April 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably the worst book I have ever predictable and more of a soap opera than any thing on TV. How did this book become such a hit?

At 8:41 AM, April 23, 2007, Blogger Christian said...

Really? What were you looking for that would have made it better? A happier ending? Just curious...

At 3:21 PM, August 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm only on page 125, (begining of 1970) and am already fascinated by the book. I'm reading it for an english assignment, and chose it myself primarily for the fact that my 4 year old nephew has Down Syndrome. I thought it would be interesting to see how Down syndrome was 'handled' in the 60's and 70's and to see people's ignorance and perception of it as a condition. I do not find it soap opera-ish - everytime I think i see something coming, it doesn't and something else completely surprising does, something my mum also noticed when she read it. Because of the reality behind the book, i am not expecting a happy ending and will be genuinly surprised if paul and phoebe ever find out about each other - i guess i'll find out in about 2 days when i finish it!

At 1:08 PM, August 27, 2007, Blogger Christian said...

Your response sounds much more in line w/ mine. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts once you finish it...

At 1:16 PM, January 04, 2009, Anonymous Ms.Meagan_25 said...

I detested this novel! Not only was it exhausting to continue to read it as every single moment in Davids life reflected on his decision back in 1964, but unrealistic. I understand that these situtions happen, but it is really necessary to exploit that one moment ! Every time I read a new paragraph I was hearing about how their life was so horrible that they couldnt get past even one day without having a breakdown. Also, some things that were said were just to unbelievable. An examples, when Paul sees Rosemary for the first time it decribes how

"he'd stared, taking her in: her paleness and her uncertain glance, her ears so delicately sculpted. He had wanted to walk down the steps and cup her face in his hands."

What kind of a person does that? wants to cup anothers person face the first time they meet. And delicately sculpted ears? This novel is truely a burden to read, and I wished I hadn't picked it up.

At 6:09 PM, January 20, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i found this book to be heart-wrenching and beautiful. The writing is absolutely amazing and the storyline is even better. I'm not sure what seems predictable, considering the book has a completely original plot line, but to each his own. personally, i feel that it not only gave light to an extremely difficult situation many people are faced with but also sheds a rather accurate light on the time period, and how it was looked down upon to be faced with a mental disease or disability for that matter. Overall, this, in my opinion was an absolutely wonderful book.


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