The Memory Keeper's Daughter

by Kim Edwards
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The Memory Keeper's Daughter Summary

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards is a novel about a family whose lives are forever changed by a secret.

  • In 1964, Dr. David Henry delivers his own twins. When he sees that the girl has Down Syndrome, he tells the nurse to take her away to an institution and tells his wife that the baby died.
  • The nurse, Caroline, instead takes the baby girl home with her and raises her as her own. David's wife, Norah, and son, Paul, struggle with the loss of the infant.
  • The story follows the lives of all four characters as they grapple with the secrets and lies that have torn their family apart.

Summary

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Last Updated on August 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

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.

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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.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on April 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

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 married.

As the twins grow up, the lives of these two families are constantly compared. Phoebe falls in love with her friend Robert. Al and Caroline are given the title of an old house and settle into life, if not on an ecstatic level at least on a happy and fulfilling one. David and Norah have not done as well. Norah takes lovers and a job. David turns to photography, often hiding either behind his camera or in his dark room. They try vacations and parties and new houses to hide their pain. But none of these distractions work. Paul, their son, is trapped and influenced by his parents alternating bickering and silence.

One day David finds out where Caroline lives. He wants to see his daughter. When he gets to the house, he finds that he does not have the courage to confront her. So he watches, in the dark outside, while Phoebe, Caroline, and Al sit down to dinner. Even though David does not have his camera in his hands, it is as if he is mentally taking pictures. He realizes that there is no way that he can reclaim those lost years. There is also no way that he can confess what he has done to his wife. But David does finally understand the connection between his refusal to claim his daughter and the life he had as a child. He returns to his West Virginia family home. There he finds a pregnant teenage girl who is squatting on his family's property.

Without fully recognizing what he is doing, David takes this girl, Rosemary, to his home in Kentucky. Of course, Norah is totally thrown off balance. She wonders if David got this girl pregnant. Even when David tries to explain, Norah does not believe him. This last wedge between them is too much. David and Norah separate. David moves into a duplex with Rosemary living in one unit and David living in the other. They lead separate but somewhat supportive lives. 

Rosemary's child is born and after gaining a degree from the local community college, she leaves. No one understands David's involvement with this girl. Before he can explain any of his secrets, David dies of a sudden heart attack.

Caroline, hearing the news of David's death, believes it is time to tell Norah about Phoebe. But it is not Norah who welcomes Phoebe to the family, even though she tries. Her attempts scare Phoebe. Instead, it is Paul who marvels at the fact that he has a twin sister. It is Paul who better understands Phoebe and finds mutual interests that bring them together. Norah marries and moves to France. Caroline and Al retire. Paul moves to Pittsburgh to be closer to Phoebe.

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