The Memory Keeper's Daughter Summary

Introduction

Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter (2005) follows the lives of Dr. David Henry, his wife, Norah, and their twin children who are secretly separated at birth. The story begins in March 1964 when an unexpected blizzard hits the small Kentucky town where the young couple lives. Norah is pregnant. Norah's labor catches them off guard, and David, who is an orthopedic surgeon, is forced to deliver the baby. Another surprise is in store for David and Norah when not one but two babies are born. They were not expecting twins.

The first baby is a healthy boy. But when the second baby emerges, a girl, David notices the telltale signs of Down Syndrome. David panics. Having been raised with a sibling with a diseased heart, David does not want his wife to go through the burdens his mother experienced in raising a chronically ill child. David thinks a Down Syndrome child will have a weak heart and will die prematurely. He tells his nurse, Caroline Gill, to take the baby girl to an institution outside of town and leave the baby there. When his wife awakens after the delivery, David tells her that the baby girl has died.

David’s deception will have lifelong repercussions. The secret that David must keep from his wife and son makes him withdraw from his family. Further complications arise when Caroline, David's nurse, does not feel right in leaving the baby girl at the decrepit institution and instead takes her home with her. She christens the child “Phoebe.” Later Caroline moves out of town and starts a whole new life, determined to raise Phoebe as her own.

David's family buckles under the strain of the supposed death of the infant and the unknown truths that surrounds it. Norah feels David has locked himself up in a self-imposed solitary confinement. Paul, David's son, feels that his father does not love him. Norah seeks out lovers to fill the emptiness of her contaminated marriage. Paul loses himself in his music. Caroline, in the meantime, fights for Phoebe's rights to a proper education and an independent life. The story ends with a semi-climatic meeting between the brother and sister twins, thus bringing the story full circle.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter Extended Summary

Norah Henry is in her last month of pregnancy and a blizzard is quickly covering the roads. Because of the blizzard, David, her husband, cannot make it to the hospital. David is a doctor, but not one who normally delivers babies. Their son, Paul, is born at David's clinic. But then another baby emerges, this one a girl. But something is not right. She has the classic markings of Down Syndrome.

David recalls his childhood, and the sister who was ill all her short life. He does not want his wife to be burdened by what he deems to be an unhealthy baby. David tells his wife that the baby has died. In truth, David has asked his nurse, Caroline, to take the baby to a special institution.

Caroline tries to do as she is told. But upon arriving at the institution, she is horrified by the rundown conditions. She takes the baby home with her. After a few days off from work, Caroline decides to move out of town. She names the baby Phoebe and commits to caring for the child herself. In the meantime, Norah is devastated by what she presumes to be the death of her baby daughter. 

As the years go by, Paul grows up in a wealthy home. But there are unresolved issues that are tormenting his parents. David is oppressed by the secret he is keeping.  He distances himself from his wife and son by overworking. Phoebe, in the mean time, is growing up in a setting that is low on cash but definitely high on positive psychology. Caroline fights for Phoebe, taking her to special classes to encourage her mental stimulation. Caroline demands that the public school system allow her daughter to go to a regular school. Caroline loves watching Phoebe grow up, although sometimes she is exhausted by the amount of care that Phoebe needs. But it is a pleasant and rewarding fatigue. In the meantime, Caroline also finds love. Al, a truck driver who helped her in the blizzard when Caroline was still in Lexington, finds her in Pittsburgh. The two of them become close friends and eventually are...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

The Memory Keeper's Daughter Chapter Summaries

1964, Chapter 1 Summary

Kim Edwards grew up in New York and earned advanced degrees in fiction and linguistics. She and her husband spent five years teaching in Asia, and there she began to publish short works of fiction and win many writing awards. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was published in 2005 and was number one on The New York Times bestseller list. It has since been published in fifteen other countries.

March 1964

Several hours before Norah’s labor begins, it starts to snow; it is the kind of storm rarely seen in Kentucky. David lights a fire in the fireplace and begins rubbing his pregnant wife’s feet.

David is a thirty-three year-old orthopedic surgeon; Norah is eleven years younger. The baby is not due for three weeks, and they are content. They have only been married about a year; they met just over a year ago. He was new to Lexington, Kentucky, and she captivated him when he saw her on a store escalator and followed her into the lingerie department. Norah wrote her name and phone number down for him, and he carried that piece of paper in his pocket all day. David called her that night, they had dinner the next night; they were married three months later.

They read and talk in front of the fire as the snow continues, and Norah goes to bed around eleven. David continues reading his medical journals, thinking about the miracle of strong bones being knitted together after they break. He takes great comfort in that kind of solidity, something his family never had. In their bedroom, Norah is doubled over, suffering apparent labor pains. David tells her it is probably false labor, but she says the contractions are only five minutes apart and strong. She is scared, but he has been trained to remain calm in emergencies and begins gathering her things for this long-awaited trip.

The car is frozen shut, but David is finally able to usher Norah to her seat before pulling out into the snow-covered streets. They both realize their lives will never be the same after this night. David has called ahead so their doctor can meet them, but when they arrive at the clinic there is only one car in the parking lot: the nurse’s powder-blue Ford Fairlane. He had called her as well. As soon as the couple opens the clinic door, they know something is wrong. The doctor who was to meet them has had an accident and will not be coming for the delivery.

The nurse, Caroline Gill, is tall and thin; her eyes are solemn and intelligent—and she is a little bit in love with David. One evening he fell asleep at his desk and dreamt of his childhood home, before his sister died and his parents moved away and abandoned the house. Caroline was in the doorway at his moment of waking, and

for an instant nothing whatsoever stood between them;...

(The entire section is 1155 words.)

1964, Chapter 2 Summary

The nurse carries the doctor’s daughter to her car in a cardboard box as she wades through the knee-deep snow. She looks at the tiny girl and thinks, “If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know” about the Down’s syndrome. The drive is treacherous, but she continues. Caroline still cannot believe she is performing this task. She is sure David was simply in shock, pain, and confusion from the necessity of delivering twins in a blizzard. He will come to his senses soon, she is sure.

As she drives, she thinks of her own birth and wonders if she slept as soundly as this infant is sleeping. Her parents, who were older at the time of her birth, had been fussy and overprotective; she remembers longing for the freedoms afforded other children as she was kept inside to avoid contamination from the world. She and the baby finally arrive at the destination Dr. Henry had given her, and she enters the formidable building with the baby.

Caroline Gill is thirty-one years old, and she has waited a long time for her “real life to begin.” She has felt since childhood that something extraordinary would happen in her life, that a moment would occur in which everything would change. Nothing about her life so far has been extraordinary—not art, not love, and not her profession. When Dr. David Henry entered the clinic in which she worked, she knew before he spoke—before he shook her hand and introduced himself—that this was the man who was going to change her life.

He was single then, and Caroline was in love with him. In that one moment when she saw him sleeping, she allowed her true feelings to show; however, weeks later he married Norah Asher and Caroline was crushed. Now she sits in an overheated building with overpowering smells of cooking while the baby continues to sleep. Her moment of resentfulness toward the doctor’s wife, the woman who appears to have everything, passes, and the nurse makes her way to the sound of...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

1964, Chapter 3 Summary

Norah Henry dreams of searching for something she has lost but awakens to the sound of her newborn son crying. She immediately puts him to her breast and he is content; she is almost content.

Although David cried immediately over the loss of their daughter (a blue baby, he had explained, as tears ran down his face), she did not. Her memories were blurry, but the infant in her arms was perfect and would be more than enough. As they were leaving the clinic, Norah asks to see her daughter, but David tells her she cannot see her. He explains she was buried on a colleague’s family farm and they can visit in the spring. Norah did not demur; it was 1964, and a wife’s deference to her husband was complete. She was glad, in...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

1964, Chapter 4 Summary

Caroline’s voice fades away and she carries the crying baby with her to the door of the grocery store. Every door is locked, and Caroline kicks the door in her frustration. A man’s voice behind her tells her what she already knows—no one is there and no one is going to open the door for her. He is a large man, and he is immediately a calming presence for the usually calm nurse. She explains her plight, and he reminds her it is Saturday night in the midst of a storm; no one is going to come help her even if she could get to the phone that is right inside the doors. He tells her she is welcome to come sit in his warm truck; when she hesitates, he tells her he is thinking of the baby more than her. He had delivered a load of...

(The entire section is 1167 words.)

1965, Chapter 1 Summary

February 1965

Norah is decorating their new home for a pre–Valentine’s Day celebration. The Henrys moved to a new house, hoping it would help them put the past behind them. It has not worked. Eleven-month-old Paul has just learned to walk and is enjoying all the new potential for exploration and destruction in this new place. The phone rings; it is her husband’s new nurse from his hospital office. His other nurse, Caroline Gill, had suddenly and inexplicably left. The nurse tells Norah there was a terrible car accident, and Dr. Henry was just on his way home when he was called back to work. He will likely not be home for hours because the wreck was a bad one. Bree comes in as Norah is hanging up...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

1965, Chapter 2 Summary

March 1965

Phoebe has a classic case of croup, and Caroline strokes her tiny back as the steam from the shower swirls around them. Dorothy comes in and sits down on the edge of the tub; Caroline is grateful for her friendship.

After Caroline and Phoebe arrived in Pittsburgh, they spent a month living in a cheap motel on the edge of town as Caroline looked for a job and watched her savings account dwindle. When she arrived at Dorothy March’s home for a job interview, Caroline was on the edge of panic. Dorothy answered the door and gave a wary glance at Phoebe sitting in her car seat, but Caroline simply ignored that and stepped inside the house. After lighting a cigarette, Dorothy studied...

(The entire section is 1414 words.)

1965, Chapter 3 Summary

May 1965

Norah and David are on a hike; their son, Paul, is in a carrier strapped to David’s chest. In his pocket David has a letter from Caroline Gill that tells him she and Phoebe are fine and Phoebe has had no heart trouble. David looks at his small son and knows that because he lied and gave their daughter away there will be “terrible consequences,” something he believes to be “both inevitable and just.” He tried to spare his wife from loss and pain; he did not realize that the loss would follow her regardless. He also failed to anticipate his own grief. When he thinks of his lost daughter, often it is his sister’s face he sees.

David has convinced himself that Norah is...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

1970, Chapter 1 Summary

May 1970

Paul is six; Norah tells her son’s teacher that he is allergic to bees. Norah enjoys watching her son play on the playground, and she is “overcome by the simple fact of his existence.” Kay Marshall interrupts Norah’s reverie. She is dressed perfectly, as are her lovely children. Her oldest, Elizabeth, is a week younger than Paul is, and she is pushing her ten-month-old in a carriage. Norah always feels a bit frumpy and inadequate when she is with Kay; in fact, Norah often thinks that if she were more like Kay, her marriage might improve and her relationship with David might be happier. When Norah picks up the baby, she is reminded of the pleasure she got from holding Paul at this age....

(The entire section is 994 words.)

1970, Chapter 2 Summary

Six-year-old Paul rushes to see his daddy—and he opens the door of David’s darkroom just as he slips an exposed sheet of paper into the developer. David snaps at his son for entering the room when the red light is on, and then he apologizes and asks what is so urgent that Paul had to ruin his pictures. Paul unclenches his small fist and shows his father some fossils he found next to a creek at a friend’s farm. David tells him they were part of a sea lily and that Kentucky used to be under an ocean. They make plans to look it up in their rock book later.

In the meantime, everything is ready for the party, and Paul has strict orders not to get dirty. The yard is ready for a party, with tables and flowers and even a...

(The entire section is 1183 words.)

1970, Chapter 3 Summary

June 1970

Watching Phoebe play delightedly in her preschool room, Dorothy remarks that the six-year-old has her mother’s hair. Caroline knows there is no possibility this is true, but she is flattered nonetheless. The chubby girl with dimpled knees and a winning smile is just another student to the children at her preschool. Here, her differences go unnoticed, though Caroline had been prepared for dire comments such as she has heard before—the cruelest of which was “at least she won’t live very long—that’s a blessing.” The comments stem from thoughtlessness, ignorance, or cruelty, and they have “rubbed a raw spot” on Caroline’s heart. She understands that Phoebe will struggle more...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)

1977, Chapter 1 Summary

July 1977

Norah won a trip to Aruba for selling the most cruise packages in the state of Kentucky last year. Now she is lying in the sand, posing for David. Paul is a gangly thirteen-year-old who runs every day as if he wants to escape his life. The sand is sticking to Norah and she is hot, but David tells her he is not quite finished and that she will love the way she becomes part of the sand and the water and the waves in the photos. The photos are of the natural setting, and Norah’s appearance in the form of a curve or a line will be an unexpected discovery and pleasure for those who look at them.

Norah has gotten very good at selling the dream of exotic places. She is an expert at...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)

1977, Chapter 2 Summary

August 1977

David is late for his son’s concert. There was an emergency at the hospital, and when he called Norah she was clearly upset with him. He is not surprised, for the inevitable strain is still between them; however, she knows this how life is for a doctor and should be more understanding. As he enters the auditorium, David sees Norah dressed immaculately in a natural silk suit, which she bought on her first trip to Singapore. She is a well-traveled woman, but she has developed an edge. Women who rely on his wife to solve their travel problems tell David often that he is a lucky man to have Norah for his wife. He wonders if they would still think that if they had found her discarded clothes in...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

1977, Chapter 3 Summary

Paul and his friend Duke are standing on the rails as a train approaches. They stay until the last possible moment despite the persistent warning whistle from the train, then they dive to safety. It is a thrill and a rush—and for a moment, Paul is able to suppress his quiet rage.

He had been running on the beach in Aruba, carefree and happy not to have gone fishing with his father. He had enjoyed fishing as a young boy, mostly because he got to spend time with his father. Since then it seemed forced and awkward, and Paul was relieved to be free. At first, he ran past the pile of clothes on the beach. Then he stopped, ran in circles for a few minutes, and ran back more slowly. He picked up the distinctive blue shirt...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)

1977, Chapter 4 Summary

September 1977

Caroline takes a picture of her daughter as they celebrate her confirmation. Phoebe is thirteen, short for her age, chubby, and “still impulsive and impassioned.” Her emotions change quickly, and now she is twirling in the sunshine and announcing to everyone she sees that she is confirmed. In her exuberance, she hugs Sandra’s son Timmy and kisses him on the cheek. Phoebe immediately looks at her mother; she remembers having had a problem with too much hugging at school. Caroline tells her it is fine to hug her friends at the party.

The yard is full of friends from the Upside Down Society, the university where Dorothy teaches, the hospital where Caroline has begun working...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)

1982, Chapter 1 Summary

April 1982

Caroline stands at the bus stop, waiting. She hears the school children on the nearby playground and sees the players on the baseball fields beyond them. It is a spring evening, and Al is on the road. She remembers, in the early days after Doro left, hiring someone to watch Phoebe and going on the road with him. It was a surreal experience, everything the same but in different places, and she only went twice. Caroline gets on the bus and gets off near the Carnegie Museum. She stands looking at the edifice, which is strung with a banner announcing that the photographs of David Henry are now on display in a collection titled “Mirror Images.”

She had read about the showing in the...

(The entire section is 1095 words.)

1982, Chapter 2 Summary

David is speaking with a professor of art history who is also the resident critic at the Carnegie Museum; she is probing David about his theories of form and beauty. She is a pretty woman, but David is more concerned about the woman waiting for him across the room. When he looks, Caroline is still there and he is relieved. He checks again several minutes later, sees she is waiting, and tries to concentrate on the critic. When he realizes the envelope with the precious pictures of his daughter is still in his hands, he places it carefully in his shirt pocket, hand trembling. As the woman drones on, David wonders if Caroline lives in Pittsburgh or one of the surrounding towns. When he looks again, Caroline is gone. He immediately...

(The entire section is 1539 words.)

1982, Chapter 3 Summary

It is morning and Norah calls Paul to get up now. Yesterday she got her hair frosted and spent time crying, wondering where her husband was. Then David came home last night after a three-day absence, and today things are more normal. She knows Paul is not really sick, but he convinces her to let him stay home. Norah is conflicted because she would like to stay home with him but has promised Bree she will go to a doctor’s appointment with her. Paul tells her it is fine, that she should go, but he secretly wishes she would drop everything to stay with him. She brushes his cheek and leaves.

Over the years, Norah and Bree have gotten much closer; in fact, Norah has become much more like her independent, free-spirited...

(The entire section is 1445 words.)

1982, Chapter 4 Summary

The personnel manager for IBM is walking into Norah’s meeting room. Bree is there to meet him until Norah gets off the phone with Sam. Sam is her latest lover; they met in the parking garage six months ago. He is an investment analyst and somewhat of a bully, and Norah realizes now she does not even like him very much. She has had four affairs during her marriage to David, and each time she began the relationship with a sense of hope and new beginnings. All of them had begun when the silence throbbing through their house had driven her to the brink of madness and had her longing for any form of solace. Across the room, Bree is waiting for Norah to begin their meeting.

Sam is offering his support and help with Paul,...

(The entire section is 1467 words.)

1988, Chapter 1 Summary

July 1988

David sits in his upstairs home office. Below, Rosemary is working in the garden as her son, Jack, a sturdy five-year-old, plays with a dump truck near her. Jack is fiercely independent; when Rosemary goes to work and David watches him, he wants to do everything himself. David tries to let him, as long as it is safe. What David enjoys most are small things such as reading Jack a story and walking with the boy’s little hand in his. He grieves that he missed such moments with Paul while he was building a clinic and a career—two careers. The pattern of his life is now painfully clear to him: when he handed his daughter to Caroline Gill, he created a secret that took root in the heart of his...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

1988, Chapter 2 Summary

Norah and Bree sit in the gardens of the Louvre, waiting for Paul. Bree has been cancer free for five years, and her life has changed. She works less, volunteers more, and is married to a widowed minister. Norah is nervous that Paul has forgotten their date. Earlier in the summer, Paul discovered that he and his mother were going to be in Paris at the same time, and he told her he would meet her at the Louvre at 5:00 and take her to dinner. Unfortunately, Norah was so concerned about giving Paul his freedom as an adult that she did not get his exact itinerary. When she received word that David had been out running and died of a heart attack, she had no way to reach her son to tell him the news. Norah flew back for the funeral, but...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

1988, Chapter 3 Summary

Caroline and Phoebe are sitting at the back of the bus, and a handsome young man named Robert is introducing himself to everyone on the bus. He comments on the weather, the driver, whatever he can think of to talk about. Caroline smiles at him as he shakes her hand, but no one else on the bus will even meet his eyes. Robert continues undaunted, and Caroline decides not to intervene as he waits patiently for someone to respond. That someone is Phoebe, who lights up from within when Robert is around. When he sits in the seat next to Phoebe, she looks at him with complete adoration in her smile; she is incapable of holding anything back. Robert returns her smile, “wonderstruck” that someone is willing to pay attention to him....

(The entire section is 1510 words.)

1989, Chapter 1 Summary

July 1, 1989

No one has been in David’s darkroom since he moved out seven years ago. Norah wants to sell the house, so she has no choice but to clean it out. David’s photographs are popular again and curators are coming tomorrow to view his collection. Because David had been so meticulous in his filing and labeling, Norah expects to be finished in a day; however, she does not take into account the lure of memory. She has only made it through one box by the afternoon. Looking at the pictures, she wonders why the photos of her depict a person she does not remember being, a life she does not remember living.

She and Frederic are getting married in a few months and then moving to France....

(The entire section is 1465 words.)

1989, Chapter 2 Summary

July 2–4, 1989

Michelle and Paul are arguing in their Cincinnati apartment. He wants to get married, but she understands what he really wants is to have a child, which would irrevocably change her life. Paul sighs; he understands now that she will be leaving him very soon. Michelle does not let the conversation drop and tells him she finds it interesting timing that he talks of marriage just as her career is about to soar; she even wonders if he is trying to end the relationship. There is a long silence, and finally Paul has to speak. Relationships are not stagnant, he tells her; they either grow or they die. He wants theirs to grow. Michelle says a piece of paper will change everything and she will...

(The entire section is 1581 words.)

1989, Chapter 3 Summary

September 1, 1989

It is the day of Norah’s wedding, and Paul hears the strains of the organ, played by a friend of his from Peru. She was a true friend to him after Michele left, admonishing him for wallowing in his loss. Phoebe is standing beside him in a silvery green dress and holding the daffodils she carried in the wedding. She is smiling and enjoying the music. This stranger, his twin, had walked next to him down the aisle of the tiny church toward Norah and Frederic. Norah had insisted that her children stand with her at her wedding.

Norah is going to France, and in a few months Paul and Phoebe will go together to France to visit them. These plans had already been decided, but a...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear